A series of sweeping wildfires forced a black bear out of its Michigan home and into the safe haven of northwest Indiana.
The year was 1871.
The brief accounts of the bear’s arrival don’t indicate what happened to it once it got here.
It was the last time a wild bear was verified in Indiana. Although there are occasional reports of bear sightings, they usually lack supportive evidence (i.e., photo, video, paw prints, scat).
For that reason, the Department of Natural Resources does not have a bear biologist. Why would you if you haven’t had bears roaming the Hoosier landscape in more than 140 years?
Instead, we have biologists who specialize in what’s here – waterfowl, white-tailed deer, upland game birds, reptiles and amphibians, bats, bobcats, raptors, and a host of other fish and wildlife species.
So when another black bear wandered in from Michigan in early June, you might think the DNR was caught flat-footed. It was not. Fortunately, one of the DNR’s biologists – Budd Veverka – has plenty of bear experience even though that’s not part of his current duties.
Veverka is the farmland wildlife biologist, which involves research and study of bobwhite quail, rabbits, and mourning doves. Black bears are not in his job description.
“A lot of wildlife biologists as they are coming up they find a certain species and it’s their thing,” he said. “I started studying bears at about age 14, and it’s what I wanted to do. It kind of became my passion animal. I just happen to be in a state that doesn’t have bears.”
At least not until the young male bear wandered in from Michigan in early June. It wasn’t a total surprise since Indiana DNR was tipped off to the possibility by counterparts in Michigan, who had been tracking the vagabond bear for about a month.
Veverka’s expertise first came into play when he was asked to examine scat samples left in the driveway of a home outside South Bend. Veverka quickly identified it as bear poop.
As he predicted, the bear headed west from there, leaving paw prints in a field near New Carlisle before settling in on the outskirts of Michigan City, where it twice raided a resident’s beekeeping operation.
Reports continued coming in to DNR offices for a couple of weeks before it appeared the bear had returned to Michigan.
Then it came back in early July.
Then it became a problem bear, destroying bird feeders, knocking over trash cans, walking on porches and standing against patio doors.
With the bear’s fear of humans evidently gone, the DNR changed its approach. It was time to trap and relocate the bear to rural Michigan.
Michigan DNR delivered a barrel trap, which worked, sort of. The bear was caught on July 18 but broke through a weak spot in the trap and escaped.
Michigan DNR sent a second trap while the first one was repaired. Both traps were deployed, but the bear was still on the loose at deadline for this issue of Wild Indiana.
Black bears were once found throughout Indiana, but by 1830 were nearly gone. Records show that through the 1840s they were seen as far south as Posey County and as far north as Lake County. According to “Mammals of Indiana” by John O. Whitaker, Jr., and Russell E. Mumford, the last confirmed report of a black bear living in Indiana was in 1850.
Will Indiana ever again have a resident black bear population?
That’s hard to say. Michigan has between 15,000 and 19,000, and some – or at least one – has shown interest in traveling. Perhaps more will head this way in the future. Or perhaps some will migrate this way from Kentucky and Ohio, where they’ve recolonized over the past 10-20 years.
Only time will tell.