HomeOutdoorsNewsBlack Bears Spreading to West Michigan Amid Population Boom

Black Bears Spreading to West Michigan Amid Population Boom

by Jon D. B.
black bear standing on hind legs
American black bear standing on hind legs. (Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto / Getty Images)

As Michigan’s robust black bear population continues to expand, West Michigan may see the iconic species take residence for the first time in centuries.

The top issue on locals’ minds? Human-bear conflicts. A resurgence of bears in the area will, of course, mean more encounters. But Cody Norton, bear specialist with Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR), is quick to ease residents over fear of “bear attacks.”

“Bear attacks are extremely rare and infrequent,” Cody Norton, a bear specialist with the DNR’s Wildlife Division, tells Michigan’s News 8. “There are certain things that you can do to try to avoid situations like that.”

Norton does say, however, that it is time for West Michigan residents to start becoming BearWise. This – not fear – will lead to a much safer co-existence.

“I think one of the biggest things is just getting rid of food sources near your house,” he offers for the outlet. But if you do find yourself up against a black bear, “don’t run away. Do like we would with most of our large predators, make yourself look big, face it, don’t turn around, and pick up your kids and dogs so that they don’t run. That kind of thing.”

The Last Decade Has Seen Significant Growth of Michigan’s Black Bear Population

Michigan’s DNR cites their black bear population as rising sharply over the last decade. The Lower Peninsula, in particular, has seen a sizable boom.

“Right now, our estimate is that [the bear population in the Lower Peninsula] has increased almost 70% since 2012,” Norton cites. “Not only has the abundance increased, but the distribution has increased, as well. We’ve got bears expanding into areas where there have not been bears in the recent past,” he says.

As more bears compete for resources, they’re having to spread out into areas that, well, don’t already have bears. Enter West Michigan.

Approximately 10,650 black bears call the Upper Peninsula home, DNR says. Around 2,200 reside the Lower Peninsula. Statewide, 1,900 bears were allowed to be harvested in 2022 bear hunting seasons to aid population control.

Hunting will continue to be integral to Michigan bear conservation, too. As natural wanderers, black bears inhabit a home range of 50+ square miles on average. There’s overlap between bears, as a result, but the majority do not share territory if they can help it. This, again, means spreading out.

‘We are starting to see bears colonize and do well in habitats that previously we might not have expected them to do that in’

Boars (males) are especially territorial and can expand their range to an incredible 300+ square miles. And in Michigan, this means non-populated areas should expect to see a lot more bears in the coming years.

“Typically, black bears need forests in order to do well. But in Michigan and in other areas, we are starting to see bears colonize and do well in habitats that previously we might not have expected them to do that in,” Norton explains.

“In the Gladwin area, bears have typically been kind of stopped right around where it turns to mostly [agriculture]. Now we’re starting to see them keep creeping down.”

As for where West Michiganders can expect black bears, “Along waterways, rivers, things like that where you’re going to have more of a forested habitat that might be more conducive,” Norton adds.

“I think it’s going to be something very interesting for us to watch and see what is enough,” he concludes.

For more on how to be BearWise, see our National Parks Journal: How to Be BearWise with Great Smoky Mountains’ Lead Wildlife Biologist next.