Almost every year at the Echo Press Newspaper in Alexandria, we get a reader-submitted photo of a black bear that has made its way into the area.

This far south in west-central Minnesota is not considered part of the bear’s common range in the state, but there’s no doubt people see them from time to time. My father spotted one last year just west of Alexandria on the gravel road leading into Wildridge RV Park on Lobster Lake. In talking to other hunters around the area, I have gotten a sense that getting pictures on game cameras of bears has become more common not too far north of Alexandria. But has hunting bears in this region of the state become a viable option for people?

“In the Alexandria area, it’s pretty low,” Glenwood DNR assistant wildlife manager Jason Strege said. “We’ve got some bears that have been seen around this summer. No official complaints or anything on them. We had one running around in southern Pope County for a while here, but the population is super low.”

Strege said it would likely take someone knowing a bear is using a food source such as a corn field already and then setting up for a hunt to successfully fill a tag. Just running a bait station on a piece of land with no prior knowledge of bears using a property would likely be fruitless.

“You don’t have to go very far north to start getting into some decent bear numbers,” Strege said, “but as a whole in our work area...it would be such a low population of bears that you’d have to have a pretty good lucky streak to get one.”

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Chris Kleine is the president of the Viking Sportsmen organization. He lives east of Lake Burgen near Alexandria. Kleine has not seen any bears himself in Douglas County but says neighbors have reported seeing two not far from his house. Local hunters also talk almost every time they get images of a bear on their game cameras.

“I’ve heard of bears being fairly common over the last several years near Parkers Prairie,” Kleine said. “I think right now it's more of a novelty and fun to see, but if they continue to stick around and reproduce locally it might be something that more hunters think about when they head out to the field.”

A sow black bear stands in thick growth near a white pine holding at least one cub near Duluth. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
A sow black bear stands in thick growth near a white pine holding at least one cub near Duluth. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

There is opportunity to hunt in west-central Minnesota. Douglas County is part of a no-quota area where hunters can purchase a bear license over the counter.

There are 13 bear management units in the state’s more natural areas of bear habitat where there are limited licenses available through a lottery system. The DNR uses hunting as a management tool in these areas, with the fall bear season running from Sept. 1 through Oct. 18.

“I’ve listened to quite a few talks from our bear biologists, and I think it’s just more that the population in general is so low that it’s not considered a real viable population,” Strege said of the no-quota areas of the state. “Harvest isn’t really a factor. Every now and again, a bear will be taken in the area, but we’re not managing a population much there. As you get into the traditional bear zones, that’s where we do a lot more population assessments and actively manage for a healthy bear population.”

A change was made to bear permit area 45 this year not too far from Alexandria. The southern portion of that unit was subdivided to create a new bear permit area (451 just north and east of Long Prairie) to allow additional bear hunting opportunities. Hunters in area 451 do not need to apply in a lottery, with licenses available to any eligible hunters.

Statewide, a total of 2,340 bears were registered during the 2019 hunting season. That was up 33% from the season before. Most of the increase occurred in the southern portion of the bear range, with harvest in bear-management units 45, 51 and 52 being two to three times higher than in 2018.

Hunter success rates often have a lot to do with how much natural food is available to bears on the landscape each year. In years with low mast-crop production, bait stations become more effective for hunters with bears more actively seeking out food.

There continues to be interest in bear hunting from Minnesota hunters, with last year’s 20,632 permit applications topping the 20,000 mark for the third straight year after not reaching 20,000 applicants since 2002. The number of permits available in those quota zones has dropped considerably over the years, from 20,840 in 1999 to 6,000 in 2012 and now 3,400 in 2019.

The number of no-quota licenses purchased last year in central, western and northwestern Minnesota reached an all-time high of 3,396.

It’s the fifth straight season that no-quota licenses purchased have passed the 3,000 mark after never reaching that level since the data was tracked in 1999. Just under 30% of the total 2019 harvest of bears was taken in no-quota zones.

Maybe the record number of licenses sold in no-quota zones is an indicator that more people are seeing a bear or two in non-traditional areas of the state. Populations certainly aren’t high in Douglas County, but hunters aren’t too far from what are considered better bear areas to the north and east of Alexandria.

“Just getting into Otter Tail County would up your chances,” Strege said. “I don’t know that it would up it a ton. Their population of bears isn’t super high either, but you start getting into Carlos, Miltona, that area, that’s still Douglas County, but they do go up two or three a year. You don’t have to go far north to start increasing your potential.”