Is it time to consider Iowa as bear habitat?

Wildlife officials study likelihood of wolf, moose and other big mammals

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August 7, 2014 | 12:01 am

Beekeeper Bob Fassbinder is conflicted about the bears and the bees.

Wild black bears along the Turkey and Volga rivers have ravaged his bee yards 11 times in the past seven weeks, costing him as much as $1,000 per raid, Fassbinder said.

“I love the idea we live in an area wild enough to support bears, but I just can’t envision keeping bees if the bears set up in this area,” the Elgin beekeeper said.

Other Iowans could face similar conflicts if the big mammals visiting Iowa in increasing numbers — bears, wolves, mountain lions and moose — establish breeding populations.

“I would like to ask the DNR (Department of Natural Resources) which of these two species (honey bees and bears) you value most because, to me, the two can’t peacefully coexist,” said Fassbinder, who has been keeping bees for 39 years.

DNR furbearer specialist Vince Evelsizer says bears and bees can coexist and have been doing so for many years in the adjacent states of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Missouri, where beekeepers have modified their operations within black bear breeding territories.

“It is interesting and neat that these animals are coming into Iowa, but it does present new challenges and conflicts. It may be that we have to adjust some things to live with it successfully,” Evelsizer said.

Black bears are unprotected in Iowa and could legally be shot, but steps often can be taken to resolve the conflict without resorting to shooting, he said.

Live trapping, he said, “may not be the answer because other residents would not want bears released in their area.”

Of the four large mammal species showing up in Iowa, only the wolf and moose are protected by law.

DNR depredation biologist Ross Ellingson, who has been working with Fassbinder to find a solution, said he recommends electric fencing to keep the bears out of Fassbinder’s bee yards — a practice that has succeeded in other states.

Fassbinder, who has 60 bee yards, each with about 36 hives, has resisted fencing because of the expense, which he said would require 60 solar-charged batteries costing $200 apiece.

Evelsizer said the DNR sympathizes with Fassbinder’s plight but believes that additional costs associated with protecting his bees would be less expensive than additional damage the bears may cause.

Fassbinder’s bee yards are in rugged, densely-vegetated and generally remote river valleys that make ideal bear habitat.

Fassbinder always speaks of bears in the plural. “It’s more than one bear,” he said. “I think it’s a bear family — a sow with two cubs and a young male, probably a 2-year-old.”

A credible eyewitness reported seeing bear cubs in the area this summer, but no photos have yet documented their presence, though Fassbinder and Ellingson have posted trail cameras near some of the raided bee yards.

A roaming young male, the kind that typically visits Iowa, would have moved on by now, Fassbinder said.

Evelsizer said he agrees with that assessment, adding that photos he’s seen of the carnage at the bee yards indicate “more damage than one bear could do in one night.”

The presence of bear cubs in Iowa, which has not been documented since the 19th century, would mark a turning point in the recent comeback of big mammals in the state.

“It may be time to consider northeast Iowa potential bear county. Time will tell if we have a breeding bear population that grows,” Evelsizer said.

Among several unconfirmed reports of bear cubs in Iowa, Dave Cutler, who has a weekend home between Elkport and Edgewood, said he distinctly saw a mature bear and a cub from his second-story window three years ago.

“You hear all kinds of stories, but when you see it yourself, it registers,” he said.

Evelsizer said he thinks it likely that bears could reproduce in Iowa and that it is possible, though less likely, that wolves and mountain lions ever would.

“The habitat base for wolves and mountain lions in Iowa is much smaller than it is for bears,” he said.

Wolves, which had not been documented in Iowa for 89 years, resurfaced this year when two wolves were killed by coyote hunters, and the DNR has confirmed the presence of 18 mountain lions in the state since 1995.

The DNR has received several mountain lion reports in recent weeks, but none has been confirmed, Evelsizer said.

The DNR’s early records listed a wolf shot in 1925 as the last documented member of the species in Iowa. Thirty years after that, however, a Jones County hunter, George Hansen of Wyoming, Iowa, collected a $10 bounty for a wolf he shot near his then home in rural Center Junction.

Hansen’s wolf was documented in clippings from the Anamosa Journal-Eureka and in personal photographs.

Hansen, now 85, said he was 26 years old when he tracked the wolf for more than two hours across nine miles of snow-covered fields before finally killing it with a semi-automatic .22-caliber rifle.

Later that year, a den of wolves was discovered near Canton, he said.

Hansen said he split the bounty with his neighbor, Carl Seehusen, who participated in the hunt.

“We spent the bounty and had a good story to tell,” Hansen said.

Moose, less common visitors to Iowa, stray into the state once or twice per decade, according to Evelsizer.

One attracted considerable attention last December when it was repeatedly observed along Mount Vernon Road in southeast Cedar Rapids.

That moose was first reported in Iowa in late October just south of the Minnesota border and was seen often as it traveled south.

The 18-month-old bull likely strayed down from northern Minnesota in an attempt to establish its own territory, said Evelsizer, who thinks it highly unlikely that moose would ever reproduce in Iowa.

Eric Wright, the DNR conservation officer in Cedar County, where the moose was seen over the winter, said the last report he received, near the end of April, placed the moose on the west side of the Cedar River within a mile of the Johnson County line.

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