Bears reclaim land near shrinking towns, hunting economy grows

November 17, 2011

Reported by Joel Bleifuss and produced by Jennifer Brandel

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With the demise of forestry, shipping and agriculture along the southern shore of Lake Superior over the past century, a once booming region is in decline. As the people have moved out, the biggest carnivore west of the Rockies, the American black bear, has moved back in. Today an estimated 30,000 bears roam Wisconsin forests. And after Labor Day, when the summer tourists are gone, it’s the bear hunters who stimulate the economy.

For Front and Center, Joel Bleifuss traveled to Northern Wisconsin with producer Jennifer Brandel to discover more about the big game industry that is emerging from the wilds of the Great North Woods.

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In this part of Wisconsin, just a few miles from lake superior, the easiest way to bag a bear is with bear bait.

 “Yeah, I’m the bear chef today, cooking enough of the good stuff, caramel in here,” says Adam Noskoviak, 22, as he mixes bear bait, which he will dump in the woods, where the bear learn to expect these sweet and fattening treats.

“Sundae best chocolate flavored cone coating, that’ll be my topping,” he says.

With so few ways to make a living up here locals have turned black bear into a job. Adam's dad and step-mom run a bear camp. The season only lasts a few weeks. So they work around the clock to make the most of it.

“It's hard to even find time for a shower, you know. But you gotta make hay when the sun shines,” says Mike Noskoviak, Adam’s dad. Mike runs the family business Superior Guides and Outfitters, a few miles south of the Lake Superior port city of Ashland, Wisconsin.

At his bear camp half a dozen hunters are hoping for a big bear and a good story. Like 24- year-old Stephanie Nolan. Mike took Stephanie deep in the woods. He laid the bait, helped her up into a tree stand, and left her to wait.

“I kind of thought my luck was a little low,” says Stephanie. “Had a squirrel throw an acorns at my head all day and all of a sudden I looked over and I saw it’s ears coming through and he walked around the bait and sat like a dog and gave me an open shot.”

Stephanie’s shiny black bear is about 175 pounds—the size of a very big dog. 

“I’m still kind of a little bit in shock. I really don’t remember much,” says Stephanie.

This year 103,000 people appled for a Wisconsin bear license, but only 9,000 of them got one.

Back at the bear camp, after the trophy photos are snapped, the bear is laid on a picnic table where it’s caped and quartered.

“We’re gonna get some sausage made, we’re gonna make some homemade jerky, maybe a small roast,” says Stephanie.

Bear sausage? That’s a new delicacy in the Northwoods. I know because I’ve been spending summers up here for the past 50 years.

Lake Superior’s water is crisp and clear, not much has changed. Except signs of bear are everywhere. Like down the road from the Noskoviaks’ bear camp at Pearce’s Sausage Kitchen, where Bill Pearce has been staying up until 4 a.m. processing bear.

As his grandkids, in flip flops, slide around in the blood of pigs being slaughtered, Bill talks bear sausage.

“The two main sausages for bear are a summer sausage and a bratwurst,” says Bill.“We make the bratwurst out of a bear. Because a bear is more like a pig. They’re  kind of greasy.”

Pearce says bear butchering accounts for 10 percent of his profits.Other local businesses— from gun stores to corner shops depend on hunters to survive.  

Non-resident sportsmen spend about $4000 dollars on their bear hunt.

That money gets spread around. For five years, Wade and Cheryl O’Bryon have operated a state bear registration station out of the village inn. It’s a bar, restaurant and cabin complex in Cornucopia— a quiet beach community on Lake Superior.

“We put in a new digital scale when we bought the restaurant,” says Cheryl. “Everybody runs out and stands around to see how much did it weigh.”

Wade adds, “Yeah, there's actually cars that even stop and let the kids get out of the car when they see a bear up on the chain, chained up on the scale.”

Says Cheryl, “ They look a little different hanging up there than they do digging through the dumpsters in the middle of the afternoon.”

She continues, “Without hunting we might as well close up for sure right after Labor Day. We were probably up 40 percent last week over the week prior because of all the bear hunters that were around.”

Wade and Cheryl sell food for the hunters, and Bill Ernst sells food for the bear. He’s the proprietor at the Butternut Feed Store in the town of well… Butternut.

“Just in our little feed stores here alone it probably turns about $15,000 to $18,000 worth of stuff through the store. They’ll come in here and they’ll buy a box of donuts and you think, ‘Well they’re gonna eat it for them themselves.’ They don’t—they dump it out for the bear.”

If buying and laying bear bait is the start of the hunt, a visit to the taxidermist is the finale. At Thimm’s Taxidermy in Butternut, the acrid stink of bear fat hangs in the air, and I wretch. Gary Thimm is scraping fat off bear skins.

“Come on in” says Gary. “This is my finished room where people come in and they pick out what kind of mount they want with the bear.”

He’s already taken in 40 carcasses and the season’s not half over.

“Last year I did 90 bears,” he says. “I'm cutting back this year, got too busy. But I'd say there's 1,000 taxidermists in Wisconsin or more.”

He says that judging by the amount of fat on the bear, wisconsin is in for a cold winter.

“How much does it cost to get a bear stuffed?” I ask

“A bear rug starts about $600 and a full bear will go up to like $2000, like the one in the case," he says.

Gary brings in $100,000 dollars a year from taxidermy, but half of that goes to the tannery and for supplies—like glass bear eyes. The bear hunt puts food on the table. It also keeps bear under control.

“For about 2-and-a-half weeks. It seemed to come around every time I was cooking with a crock pot with the windows open,” says Nicole McNally, a restaurant manager in La Pointe, Wisconsin, on Madeline Island.

Nicole had a problem with a so’called “nuisance” bear.

“It wasn't afraid of us,” she says. “We tried to shoo it away and it would leave —but it would leave very slowly.”

Bear pillage trash cans, break into homes and even smash a car windows for a bag of Cheetos left on a front seat. David MacFarland is the bear ecologist at Wisconsin’s department of natural resources.

“The stated objective of the Bear Management Committee is to, is to bring the population down a little bit,” says David.

Last year in wisconsin, 66 nusiance bears were shot and 481 nusiance bears were trapped and relocated.

Bear also destroy crops.

“They're second only to deer in the, the damage that are caused by a mammal in the state to, primarily corn,” says David.

But not everyone is convinced that killing bear is necessary.

“What do you hunt? Have you gone bear hunting?” I ask Len Moore, 26, and a member of the Bad River Band of Ojibwe Indians.

“No, I'm bear clan.  So for me that is like somebody, you know, having a manhunt for my brother,” he says.

Len Moore lives on the Bad River Reservation. He’s out gathering balsam fir boughs to sell for Christmas wreaths. As he talks, his silver, bear-paw earrings dance in the wind.

“I don't know if you've ever experienced a bear killing.  It's a tragedy,” he says. “It's a beautiful, majestic being whose life has ended because somebody thinks it's cool to kill a predator. When we say the bear is our cousin, and family. We really believe that. I don’t believe the bear are a threat to anybody.”

What is a threat—to everyone—is the stalled economy. And bear hunting gives the north woods a boost.

Back at the Noskoviaks’ bear camp, Mike says, “It's not high profit in any way. It's basically covering our expenses and we live off the business. Nobody is getting rich here obviously.”

Mike and his wife Tanya live in a mobile home next to their backwoods bear camp. She lost her real estate job in the recession. And Mike, as a full-time outdoors guide makes about $30,000 a year.

Adam, works for his dad during bear season and he lives off the land, as he looks for work.

“The way the economy is up here, I’ve been struggling and just living off the wild,” he says. “Yeah, I’ll be trapping for coons and stuff for money. An average size raccoon will come in 10, 12 bucks. There’s all kinds of things around here a guys got to struggle with to make money.

Soon the snows will set in. And like the bear, Adam will hunker down for the winter, do some trapping and hope to emerge in the spring under better circumstances.

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