BELTRAMI ISLAND STATE FOREST, Minn. – It didn’t take more than a few seconds for the three young bears to figure out they didn’t have to stay cooped up any longer.

“Go ahead guys – you’re free,” Andy Tri said, lifting the squeaky gate on the culvert-like structure that held the bears. “Go now.”

One sharp rap on the culvert cage was all it took for Tri to coax the ursine trio from the trap to their new lives in the wild.

Where they belong.

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Acting bear project leader for the Department of Natural Resources in Grand Rapids, Minn., Tri released eight black bears back to the wild Tuesday afternoon, March 23, at various sites in and around Beltrami Island State Forest.

The bears, which ranged from 55 pounds to 130 pounds, all had been orphaned last year as cubs and spent the past several months at Wild and Free, a rehabilitation facility in Garrison, Minn., that specializes in rescuing and rehabilitating orphaned animals for eventual release back to the wild.

Wild and Free is the only facility in Minnesota licensed to rehabilitate bears, raising them in an environment with minimal human contact. Because of that, the bears maintain a natural fear of people and don’t associate humans with food when they’re released, Tri says.

When feeding the bears, staff at Wild and Free wear a “ghillie suit,” Tri says, a shaggy outfit that makes the wearer look more like a wild animal than a human.

Wild and Free is supported solely by membership dues, fundraising, donations and volunteer efforts, according to the facility’s website.

“They don’t talk in the pen, and they just feed the bears and leave them alone,” he said. “The only other contact the bears have are their brethren in the pen, so they’re released with little human contact whatsoever.”

The eight bears released March 23 were rescued from various places across Minnesota bear country.

“Some of the bears came from this area,” Tri said, referring to northwest Minnesota. “The mother was chased off with a combine and never came back and the cubs were abandoned, or the mother was separated from the cubs and they were rescued and brought down to Garrison.”

The DNR launched the reintroduction program in the mid-1980s, Tri said, and the effort ranges from just a few bears each year to 10 bears this year. The eight bears released Tuesday were fitted with chartreuse numbered ear tags before leaving Wild and Free. Tri said he will make another trip to Wild and Free in a couple of weeks to release the last two bears, which eluded capture March 23.

Historically, the bears have a “pretty good chance” of survival, Tri says, at least for the first couple of years. The average bear harvested in Minnesota is 3 years old, Tri said, a number that drops to 2 years old when the bear is a male.

“They end up doing what wild bears do, and they don’t generally get into trouble,” he said.

A better place

Without help, the orphaned cubs likely wouldn’t have survived. Tri put in a long day, driving to Garrison to capture and load the bears before hauling them in three of the culvert-like structures for the 4-hour drive to Beltrami forest country.

The bears were tranquilized for transport but needed only minimal prodding to bolt for freedom.

“It’s pretty rewarding,” Tri said of releasing the bears. “It doesn’t have a large impact on the overall bear population. It’s more individualistic for what happens to these bears, but it’s nice to see them end up in a better place than getting hit on the road or a situation where they might not make it on their own.”

Release sites vary, Tri says, depending on local interest and where the DNR has been studying bears in recent years. The farther in the boonies they can get, the better. Typically, that’s far northern Minnesota, the Red Lake Bog country or large forested areas of northwest Minnesota or central Minnesota, Tri said.

“We try to find the most spots we can (that are) away from people and away from ag producers,” he said. “Basically, where we find good habitat away from people.”

Plummer rescue

Two of the young bears in this year’s release were rescued as cubs in June 2020 south of Plummer, Minn., where a Red Lake County employee out checking roads first saw a small cub run across a road and up a power pole.

Brent Hemly of Plummer, who assisted the DNR on a decade-long bear research project in northwest Minnesota that ended in the spring of 2020, spotted two cubs the next evening but no sign of their mother.

Usually, small cubs don’t wander very far from their mother, especially for two full days, and so Hemly helped coordinate a rescue effort along with area DNR staff and Plummer area locals.

Catching the cubs took some doing, Hemly recalls, but the crew eventually caught them using landing nets. Hemly then put the cubs in a dog kennel and drove to Park Rapids, Minn., where he was met by a volunteer from Wild and Free, who then took the cubs to Garrison for the rehabilitation that culminated in Tuesday’s release.

Hemly also coordinated March 23’s release, finding sites for Tri to return the eight young bears to the wild.

“Bears are pretty tough, but they looked pretty ragged,” Hemly said of the cubs, which he estimated weighed about 15 pounds when they were rescued last June. “I really questioned if they’d make it.”

It’s hard to say which of the bears released Tuesday came from Plummer, but the chocolate coloring of one of the bears made it a likely candidate.

“We had one chocolate one and one black one,” Hemly said.

Positive trend

Bear numbers in Minnesota are trending in the right direction after several years of decline, Tri said. The bear population peaked in the early 2000s but has declined about 50% in the last 15 years, he said. Numbers in recent years have held steady in the range of 12,000 to 15,000 bears statewide.

“In 2012, we cut permits drastically,” Tri said. “We’re pulling out of the nosedive, and things seem to be on a slow but upward positive trend.”

Bears in many parts of northwest Minnesota are a relatively recent phenomenon dating back only a couple of decades or so, but if history is any indication, the biggest bears released Tuesday likely came from the northwest part of the state, Tri speculates.

The largest collared research bear in Minnesota was from the Strathcona, Minn., area in the northwest part of the state, Tri said; the bear weighed 600 pounds and might still be alive.

“It’s just incredible how different they can be,” he said. “They just grow faster up there because there’s so much food.”

Chart comparing the weight of bears at different ages at Camp Ripley, northwest Minnesota, Chippewa National Forest and Voyageurs National Park. Bears in northwest Minnesota are among the largest and fastest-growing in the state. (Minnesota DNR)
Chart comparing the weight of bears at different ages at Camp Ripley, northwest Minnesota, Chippewa National Forest and Voyageurs National Park. Bears in northwest Minnesota are among the largest and fastest-growing in the state. (Minnesota DNR)