Bear Sightings Becoming More Common in Southern Michigan

DNR wildlife technician Dan Moran puts a radio collar on a bear in Saginaw County.

July 7, 2011

Recent black bear sightings in Washtenaw County serve as a reminder to all state residents that black bears are increasingly present in southern Michigan.

The Dexter-area bear, first seen at a Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Park but later photographed on nearby private property, is likely an escapee from a private facility in Jackson County, which has recently confirmed that it is missing a bear. Attempts to capture the bear by the Department of Natural Resources have been unsuccessful so far, but now that it appears it is not a wild animal, it is no longer the DNR's responsibility. The DNR will, however, work with the Washtenaw County Sherriff Department in attempting to capture the creature.

The Dexter bear, as it's come to be known, does not appear to be afraid of humans. It is not wise to approach or feed this animal; people should never approach or feed bears.

The Dexter bear is the second southern Michigan bear to make the news this spring. In mid-April, Department of Natural Resources personnel were able to put a radio collar on a young male bear in Saginaw County.

"We're interested in learning more about how they use the landscape in southern Michigan," explained DNR wildlife research biologist Dwayne Etter. "The landscape in southern Michigan is very different from traditional bear habitat further north."

In April, Etter received a call from an acquaintance at his office at Rose Lake State Game Area about a bear spotted in a tree just outside of Merrill. Etter called DNR wildlife technician Dan Moran - who, like Etter, has experience handling bears - at Houghton Lake and asked Moran to meet him.

It took about 90 minutes for the pair to meet up, by which time the bear had climbed down from the tree and moved on. But Etter received a phone call from someone else telling him the bear was in a hedge row adjoining a nearby ditch.

By this time, a crowd of onlookers had gathered in the vicinity. Etter identified the landowner, contacted him, and received permission to enter the property to look for the bear. He found it lying down in the brush.

"It looked like he was snoozing," Etter said.

The DNR staffers shot the bruin with a tranquilizer dart. The bear took off on a run, climbed a tree, and passed out about 10 feet above the ground. The biologists were able to drive up to the tree, get a rope around the bear and lower it to the ground.

Etter said it was a male, about 150 pounds, and he guessed it to be 2 or 3 years old.

 This black bear, photographed near Dexter, is believed to be an escapee from a private facility.

Etter and Moran collared the animal, photographed it, and let bystanders photograph it as well. Etter and Moran stayed with the creature past sunset, until it showed signs of recovery, then departed.

"The next day he was seen further up the tree line, so he'd gotten up and moved," Etter said.

The Saginaw County bear is the southernmost collared bear in Michigan. Other collared bears south of traditional Michigan bear country include a male that was trapped and collared outside of Whitehall in orchard country, as well a sow with cubs in Newaygo County, and a male in Oceana County.

"We got a good break getting this bear collared this far south," said Etter, who is studying how bear disperse in southern Michigan.

Etter said DNR biologists would like to hear of any bears folks see south of M-20.

"We attempted to trap a bear in Ionia County in June," he said. "On two occasions this bear visited a trap but wouldn't go inside. We haven't heard about him since he was last reported just south of Sheridan.

"There's been a bear that I've received phone calls about the last three years just north of Kalamazoo and there was one in Jackson County a couple of years ago. So we know we have them down here. When they pop up in the spring that far south, we know those are bears that didn't just get here. They denned here.

"I'm really interested to see next year, when we retrieve these collars, what those bears did."

In recent years, bears have been documented in Washtenaw, Ionia and Ingham counties.

"There was a bear sighted just north of Lansing several years ago," Etter said. "We have photos of tracks from Sleepy Hollow State Park in April.

"We had a cub road-killed in Barry County in 2007," Etter said. "We'd had reports of a bear with two cubs out there that summer. So I'm relatively certain we've had reproducing bears in southern Michigan and I think we probably have more bears down here than we know."

Although people in northern Michigan have been dealing with bears forever, most southern Michigan residents are naive to their habits. Wildlife officials remind citizens that there is no reason to be alarmed if they see a bear; black bears are typically retiring creatures and are not likely to attack unless provoked.

The best way to avoid bear problems is to take small, measured steps to prevent them:

  • Never feed bears. If bears learn to associate humans with food, they will become a problem.


  • Keep garbage in secured containers.


  • Do not feed pets or keep pet food outside.


  • Keep barbeque grills or picnic tables clean.


If you see a bear, do not approach it. In most cases it will retreat. If it doesn't, shout at it and move slowly away, allowing it an escape path.

If you see a bear in a tree, clear the area of people and dogs so the bear can climb down and move on. If the area cannot be cleared, contact local law enforcement personnel or the DNR Report All Poaching Hotline at 800-392-7800.

If you notice damage to bird feeders, remove the feeders for a few days. Bears will usually move on if there is no food source nearby.

Southern Michigan residents who see bears are encouraged to report them to Etter at 517-641-4903.

"If we can get a collar on an adult bear - or, better yet, on a female -- in southern Michigan, that will really tell us something," Etter said.

For more information about Michigan black bears, visit