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Searching for the Black Bears of Itasca

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This blog post is written by one of our Monthly Youth Blog Correspondents, Freya, an alumni of our Bucktails and Ursids field schools.  She writes about her search for the black bear in Itasca State Park, Minnesota.  She also included some of her original artwork – very impressive!


One of the sketches I worked on during the long drive back to Pennsylvania, while Minnesota scenery and wildlife were still fresh in my mind.

Unlike some of you lucky folks, I do not live in an area where there are bears. So when we were in Minnesota this summer, camping in Itasca State Park, I was hoping very much to get to see one. Black bear sightings in Itasca aren’t that rare; the population is stable and there are about 2-3 bears per square mile.


My hopes and dreams.

It wasn’t always like this. Black bears in Minnesota have a recovery story like much other wildlife in the U.S. But hey, just ‘cause it’s one of many recovery stories doesn’t mean it’s not interesting. In Minnesota, black bears actually used to be classified as ‘varmints’ (yep, varmint is an official classification)! What’s more, there was a bounty for killing one: $50 paid by the county. If anyone one spotted a bear, they could just call their friends and try to surround and kill it. If the hunt was successful, they’d use the bounty money to buy beer and have a big party that night!

Well, you can imagine that paying for everyone’s parties might take a toll on Minnesota’s bears. It did. In 1959 there were only two sightings in the park. In 1971, no doubt to the dismay of many happy party-goers, the bear became a ‘big game species’. Fully protected under game laws, the bear population started to rise. These days, the Minnesota population is hanging around 10-15,000, which is actually lower than the target population of 15-20,000. Bears have been hit by some tough winters and some over-hunting. Harsh winters can actually lead to over-hunting: since there’s less food around, hunter’s bait is much more attractive and so a higher proportion of the population gets killed. Even with regulations, it’s impossible to have complete control of a population.

In Minnesota, I found out about a technique for tagging bears that I hadn’t heard of before. Managers put out baits, like peanut butter and marshmallows or bacon, with tetracycline pills in them, just the way you’d give your dog medications in a blob of peanut butter. Tetracycline is an antibiotic that stains the bear’s teeth. Brown teeth mark the bear just like an ear-tag. The bait is mounted on tree trunks in closed boxes that only a bear is strong enough to open. Hunters are always required to turn in teeth from any bear they kill. With the tetracycline staining, the teeth give managers both the bear’s age and a population estimate, based on the proportion of stained teeth they collect.
The forest in Minnesota, being further north, is more representative of the black bear’s range than a Pennsylvania forest. The winters are long and bitterly cold, while the summers are a mad scramble for all the wildlife to grow, reproduce and store enough energy to make it through the next deep-freeze. We were there in mid-July, one of the busiest months of the year for wildlife. We took hikes every day, hoping to see a bear.


Itasca seemed like a great place for a bear to forage. There were fruiting plants everywhere you looked. These are dogwood berries; they’ll turn red when they ripen.


Pin Cherry, another favorite bear food.


False Solomon’s Seal. There’s not much fruit on each plant, but they were absolutely everywhere.      These berries will also turn red when they’re ripe.


Beaked hazelnuts. These are one of the most important food sources to Minnesota bears because they are the only hard mast in these northern forests. Bears will walk more than 40 miles for a good hazelnut patch and, once it reaches one, a bear can eat 12 lbs of hazelnuts in a day!




We saw dead wood that looked like it had been shredded by bears searching for ants and beetle larvae, important and delicious sources of protein!

So, did we get to see a bear? No, but they saw us. After dark on our first night, my younger cousin and I walked to a playground close to our campsite. We heard the rustling of something pretty big a little way into the woods and then a weird, hollow popping noise. The only thing I could imagine making a noise like that was some kind of exotic bird, which didn’t match the scuffling that went with it. Then, a rustle from the trees of the other side of the clearing and a long low moan startled me. I stared into the grainy black shadows. It had sounded like a big, worried dog with a head cold. “Dog?” my cousin asked. Nope, I thought. “Yeah.” I said, “we should go.”

More than a week later when we’d gotten home from camping, I was trying to figure out what we’d heard. There are foxes, gray wolves, bobcats, mountain lions, badgers, raccoons, weasels, skunks and black bears in Itasca. Some of these we could rule out easily. I listened to bear noises online, and found this: Listen to the sound-file beneath ‘Apprehensive expressions’.

It’s called jaw-popping and they make the sound when they’re distressed, by chomping their teeth together. This is quite distinctive, and definitely what we heard. So, the whole week in Isaca while I was hoping for a bear encounter, I’d already been within 25 feet of two bears the very first night! Back home in Pennsylvania, I’ve read that bear sightings in my area are on the rise, so I’ll have to keep my eyes open here too.


Wait! We did spot one of these elusive creatures… in the visitor’s center.

Praying Mantis in the Early Morning Light

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Today’s blog post is written by Grace, a Brookies alumni.  Her riveting experience with a praying mantis was one to remember!

As I was leaving for school recently, an adult praying mantis stopped me in my tracks. This remarkable insect was resting on a hydrangea leaf in front of my house. This was fascinating to me for 2 reasons: I have never seen a praying mantis on our property and, more importantly, I have never been able to study a praying mantis at such close range. It’s markings were striking and I quickly took this picture. Afterwords, I stood motionless hoping to have an up-close look as it found some breakfast using its large forelegs to grip its prey. Unfortunately, it was not to be. The mantis moved only slightly from its original position on the leaf and didn’t indulge in breakfast. I recommend looking closely for these well-camouflaged creatures and add them to your nature journals.

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Praying Mantis poses for the camera!

Hunting Without A Gun

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This post is by Makayla, a Bucktails alumni, who writes about her unique experience hunting for elk sheds.  Definitely an activity you should try if you have the chance!


This title may cause you to infer that I am going to talk about archery hunting. Think again! I love getting outdoors and hunting for deer and elk sheds. White-tailed deer usually drop their antlers anytime between late December and March. On the other hand, elk usually lose their antlers in April or May. I have to admit that I enjoy looking for elk sheds the most. They truly are massive and pictures do them no justice.

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My lucky year of deer shed hunting.

One day my dad, his friend, and I decided that we were going on a hike to look for elk sheds. They were already addicted and little did I realize that later that day, I would be, too. That day I ended up finding a set of sheds to a 7×7 elk and an elk shed that had laid in the woods for a few years (it had been chewed on by rodents and bleached by the sun). That was one of the best days of my life! Trust me, not every day is like this. Most days we walk miles without finding anything. This makes finding something even better! The rush of excitement when you find a deer or elk shed is indescribable. So, next time you take a hike in the woods without your gun, remember that you are still hunting! Warning: Once you find one shed, you will become addicted!


The first and last two elk sheds are the ones I found. What a great day!

The Nile Hippo


This post is brought to us by Gabriel, an Ursids alumni – he writes about an exotic animal he had a chance to see and photograph.

The Nile Hippo, H. a. amphibius, is native to, you guessed it, the Nile River, stretching to Tanzania and Mozambique. Hippopotamus derives from Greek, hippos– meaning horse and potamos– which means river; so, the Hippopotamus is the “horse of the river.” Hippopotamuses are usually viewed as lazy and docile. In reality, the opposite is true; hippos are extremely territorial animals and will fight if provoked. They can swim fast enough to make wakes in the water (30mph for spurts), but commonly they walk across the bottom of the bodies of water they live in. They love the water and even sleep underwater, naturally surfacing to breath while still asleep. Even though the Hippo can be extremely aggressive, even chasing boats or people on land, it mostly eats grasses, occasionally eating aquatic plants.



The Nile Hippopotamus Swimming though its habitat.

Saving the Red Pine Forests of Minnesota

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This post is one of a four part mini-series by one of our NextGen Monthly Correspondents – Freya B.  She is a Bucktails and Ursids alumni, and writes about her trip to Minnesota – the series begins with the red pine forests.  

This summer my family took a trip to Minnesota. While we were there we camped in Itasca State Park, famed for its mature stands of impressive red pine and for holding the headwaters of the Mississippi river. It’s a lovely place, and the next time you happen to be about 1,200 miles north-west, I strongly suggest you stop by!
Today, great expanses of Minnesota, once prairie, are agricultural fields; rows and rows of corn and soybeans that go on for miles and miles. However, you can see parts of MN that haven’t been touched by the plow. As you drive into the north-east part of the state, the endless flatness ends, and the land becomes hilly and forested. You round bends and come across shining hidden lakes and wetlands that reflect the stark white birch trunks and towering pines.

One of many small unnamed lakes in Itasca. All the little lakes and wetlands are beautiful, but the clouds of mosquitoes and deer flies they breed are…not.


Deer Park Lake. We heard bald eagles here, squawking like there was no tomorrow. We think there were three, though it sounded like more!

Across Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, red pine forests were a dominant ecosystem. These trees can live to be 500 years old, and when seen in a healthy mature stand, now quite rare, they have a majestic, imposing presence. There were once more than seven million acres of red pine forests covering these three states, where now there are less than two million. Old growth red pine stands are habitat and nesting areas for bald eagles, and many songbirds


Red pine is a mid-successional species; without disturbances, they are replaced by white pine and hardwoods like birch and maple.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, red pines took some major hits. The ravenous logging of the late 1800s led to brushy growth which, in turn, caused the deer population to boom. By the mid-1930s, there were an estimated 75 deer per square mile in some parts of Itasca! This was a problem for both pines and deer. There wasn’t enough food to sustain that deer density; in 1943 at least 1,000 deer starved to death in the northern half of the park alone and, of course, any pine seedlings were browsed away immediately.
In 1937, the park put in a 100 m2 deer exclosure to see the impact of deer browsing on pine seedlings. Eight years after the exclosure was put in, 1,480 seedlings were counted inside the exclosure, while not one seedling could be found outside it!


Outside the old deer exclosure this summer; notice the pines are all the same age.


Inside the old deer exclosure this summer; notice all the young red pines, a healthy mixed-age stand.

Today, Itasca deer are under control. An established hunting season, since 1943, helps to keep the population in check and prescribed burning limits their food. However, though the deer population is nothing like it was, it’s still high, and they still make pine regeneration difficult. Paper bud caps are a simple, inexpensive and environmentally friendly way of stopping deer from nibbling seedlings to death. A bud cap is just a slip of regular light-weight paper stapled around the main bud cluster of a seedling. Rangers put them on seedlings every year during the fall.
Another factor in the red pine’s crash was the policy of fire suppression. Red pine forests are fire-dependant. You can find fire-dependent plant communities all over the US: chaparral in California, western ponderosa pine forests and longleaf pine forests in the southeast. In any ecosystem that evolved with wildfires, you find species that have adaptations that make them reliant on fire; for instance, germinating in response to the heat, light, smoke, or gas that comes with fire. Red pine need the bare, nutrient rich soil and strong sunlight that fires leave behind, and their bark protects them from burning.


Fires can kill hardwoods that don’t have the pine’s fire-resistant bark.


A mature red pine has survived many fires.

It’s estimated that, in pre-settlement times, the area that is now Itasca Park would have seen a large wildfire every 5 years, on average, and that any given spot burned about once every 22 years. For a long time though, rangers patrolled fire-towers throughout the park and any wildfires spotted were quickly put out.


One of three old watchtowers used to spot smoke. The park uses aircraft now, but there’s still a spectacular view from the top.

After people realized that fire was necessary for restoring a healthy ecosystem, it wasn’t as simple as just letting natural fires burn free (what would Smokey say!). These days, managers have a prescribed burning plan for the park and driving or walking through Itasca, you can see the patchwork of clear and shrubby areas the burning regime creates.
Conservation and forest management have come a long way in the past 100 or so years and Itasca, being the oldest state park in Minnesota (est. 1891), has seen it all. Now that managers have been doing the right things for a while, the deer herd is healthy and sustainable, and the red pine is on it’s way to recovery.


Me and my buddy the red pine. Wishing you a speedy recovery, the woods haven’t been the same without you! Get well soon big guy!