Bearing South

A THOUSAND FEET ABOVE DUNN COUNTY IN WEST-CENTRAL Wisconsin, Karl Malcolm sits hunched in the cockpit of a Cessna Skymaster as it follows the curves of the Cedar River. Below, the landscape bursts with autumn color, but Malcolm isn’t paying attention. His head is down, and his eyes are shut. His hands press headphones tightly to his ears. Long minutes pass as Malcolm, a graduate student in forest and wildlife ecology, is lost in silent concentration.

Suddenly his head comes up, eyes open now, scanning the ground below. “I’ve got one. To the left,” he calls out. “Strong now. Right here.”

Immediately the horizon tips on end as pilot Paul Anderson throws the plane into a steep turn to point the left wing, bristling with antennae, straight down. The Cessna makes tight circles around a wooded hill, an island of trees among the cornfields. Somewhere in that woodlot, or the tall corn that surrounds it, a 20-month-old male black bear is finding its way through the most dangerous year of its life.

A male bear’s life starts out pretty easy, but by the second year, it’s anything but. His once-protective mother pushes him away, and if he stays in the vicinity of other bears, he’s vulnerable to attack by older, larger males. So he strikes out, looking for a piece of bear-free ground to call his own. The journey could take him hundreds of miles, during which he’s likely to encounter houses, highways, hunters and countless other dangers.

A quarter century ago, Wisconsin bears didn’t have to roam far to find their own turf. A report published in 1982 by the state’s Department of Natural Resources estimated that Wisconsin had fewer than 5,000 bears, and the authors expressed concern that numbers were declining. The state no longer had a resident bear population south of Highway 64, an east-west road that passes 20 miles north of Wausau, and many experts doubted it ever would.

Today, largely due to hunting restrictions enacted in 1986, Wisconsin has an estimated 12,500 to 14,000 bears. While most of them still reside in the upper third of the state, some 1,500 of them live south of Highway 64. Bears now thrive in Wisconsin’s central forest, an island of oak and pine covering several million acres of Clark, Dunn, Juneau and Jackson counties. And they continue to push southward. Bears have been spotted around Madison and other southern Wisconsin communities, and in 2005, a jogger ran across one in a park in Cedarburg, a 20-minute drive from downtown Milwaukee.

These aren’t just wandering males, either. Sows with cubs have been spotted in several southern counties, says Mike Foy BS’79, a DNR wildlife manager for Rock and Green Counties, which lie near the Illinois border. “We’ve had some of these animals over-winter now,” he says. “A female with cubs is an indication that we’re on the way to having a resident bear population.”

If you live around rural areas, the prospect of having bears in the neighborhood is more than just a curiosity. Some welcome the idea—real-estate ads for vacation properties often play up the chance to see bears. Others dislike the nuisance of sealing up garbage cans and taking bird feeders inside each night. But for farmers, bears can be a headache. A trampling, feeding bear can leave a cornfield looking like a crop circle. In 2006, Wisconsin farmers made claims of $121,708 for damage done by bears. That same year, 19 bears were trapped on a single farm in Sawyer County.

Bear attacks on humans are very rare—often coming years apart, which is remarkable considering the thousands of times that humans encounter bears each year. But when they happen, they can be serious. In two separate incidents in 2007, Wisconsin deer hunters went to the hospital after startling bears.

All of this weighs on the minds of DNR wildlife managers, who are enlisted to help humans coexist with the state’s wilder residents. To deal with those questions, the DNR is helping fund a research project led by Tim Van Deelen, a CALS assistant professor of forest and wildlife ecology who studies the population dynamics of large animals. Along with graduate students Karl Malcolm, Dave MacFarland and Lizzy Berkley, Van Deelen is out to understand not just where the wild things are in Wisconsin, but where they are going.