March–April 2023


Bear Country Expands

For 20 years, Minnesota’s black bear range has been growing.

Julie Forster

A few summers ago, a female black bear took up residence at the 5,000-acre Elm Creek Park Reserve in Maple Grove. She later gave birth to two cubs.

Though the state’s bears frequently stray south of their core territory in the north woods, these wanderings tend to be temporary searches for food. The Elm Creek bear was notable because she denned up and reproduced outside of the traditional black bear range—an indicator of a larger trend in which Minnesota’s bear territory has slowly expanded south and west over the past 20 years. 

“Our general statement is, Minnesota is bear country,” says DNR biologist Andrew Tri, who adds that multiple factors are driving the state’s growing bear range, including the hunt for food and habitat, a stable bear population, and humans’ increased tolerance for the animal. 

Today, the state’s black bear population hovers between 12,000 and 16,000 and continues a slow comeback from 2012, when Minnesota’s bear numbers bottomed out, crashing 50 percent from highs in the early 2000s. With a stable population comes the need for additional habitat. “As young bears disperse from where they’re born, they’re looking for new areas to call their own,” says Tri. 

These bears will also be looking for a good meal. A black bear’s natural diet includes nuts, berries, plants, and insects, but frost or drought can decimate these forest foods, pushing the animals south and west in search of calories to sustain themselves through hibernation. In recent decades, a series of “food failure years” in northern forests have driven some bears to permanently disperse to parts of northwestern Minnesota as well as the oak forests of central and southern Minnesota, where they’ve developed a taste for corn crops and sunflowers on nearby farmland.

Back at Elm Creek Park Reserve, bears continue to hang around. Though surrounded by housing developments, black bears have found suitable habitat in Elm Creek’s many acres of oak trees, sugar maple floodplain, and meandering creeks. “We presume there is at least one, if not more than one, bear hibernating in Elm Creek right now,” says John Moriarty, senior wildlife manager for Three Rivers Park District.

Scott Noland, a DNR wildlife supervisor for the Forest Lake area, is seeing a similar pattern in his district. Last year there were sows with three cubs at Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area near Forest Lake and sows with cubs just north of Stillwater. “We’re seeing more females with cubs, indicating more resident bears in the area,” says Noland. 

The DNR documents bear expansion at, where people are asked to report sightings of black bears outside their primary range.