It is with a heavy heart that we write this update. On January 14, the Minnesota DNR arrived under the cover of darkness to capture Solo and her 2 cubs and take them to Oswald's Bear Ranch, a tourist operation near Newberry, Michigan. There, this special trusting mother and her cubs will be confined with 26 other bears for the rest of their lives. Solo had never threatened or harmed anyone. Her worst crime was eating from bird feeders. Nothing was done to limit the bird feeding or discourage her from visiting. The vast majority of the community wanted to work with this gentle family to make them better citizens. The DNR ignored the community, its leaders, and the researchers studying Solo. The DNR never sought accurate information from people familiar with this bear. They acted on inaccurate information to make a wrong decision and issued unsupported fear-mongoring statements to the public to justify it.
Solo was not a bear we were able to spend much time with. She seldom visited the field station, and she spent so much time on private property that we were able to walk with her only twice. People who fed her elsewhere in her territory were usually the ones to put radio-collars on her. However, Solo's missing ear made it easy for her to remove the collars, so she was without a radio-collar much of the time, limiting our radio-tracking opportunities. We considered it a special occasion when she stopped by the field station.
Solo made a difference in the lives of nearly everyone who met her close-up. Her calm ways helped people overcome their fear of bears and begin viewing bears as something other than the savage beasts of magazine covers. Her distinctively marked face and white chest blaze made her as beautiful on the outside as she was on the inside. People who don't know bears have a hard time realizing how different their personalities are and how deeply certain bears can affect people. Her missing ear made her easily recognizeable in the community where she became very popular.
During the summer of 2006, 2-year-old Solo discovered the many bird feeders at cabins that line Walsh Road. In 2007, with cubs, she again frequented that area. Walsh Road runs the length of a narrow isthmus between two lakes. In addition to the bird feeders, it has deer feeders and an abundance of natural and domestic fruits. It also is the perfect hideaway for a mother trying to protect her cubs from bears and wolves. A pack of wolves moved into the wilder portion of Solo's territory in May 2007, and she frequented Walsh Road until mid August when the wolves moved on. As residents discovered her personality, many welcomed her. Some even fed her. Others quietly admired her as she passed through their yards. A few backed away in fear. No one made a consistent effort to discourage her visits. A few people called the DNR to register complaints.
Interestingly, the DNR concealed these complaints from us, preventing us from taking any action to alleviate fear or discourage her visits. This would have been a great research opportunity and a chance to save her from the wrath of a few and from the DNR. Meanwhile, the DNR began building a case against Solo by soliciting complaints. Anyone who called from Eagles Nest Township, and only that township, was asked about bears. Comments were recorded as complaints. In mid-summer 2007, the DNR suggested that residents take their complaints to the town board and seek a resolution for the DNR to take action. Residents created a petition (click here to read the petition), which was signed by representatives of 20 of the 350 housing units in the township. That was when we learned Solo was raiding the bonanza of bird feeders. One signatory had 17 bird feeders. The town called a public meeting, which was held on August 14. Lynn Rogers and DNR Wildlife Manager Tom Rusch were each given 20 minutes to speak. Residents were then each given 2 minutes to comment or ask questions. The township formed a 14-member Community Bear Committee to develop guidelines for coexisting with wildlife, including bears. Tom Rusch then made clear his purpose in building his case against Solo. Before the committee had its first meeting, he emailed the committee his recommendations. They did not involve removing attractants or taking action to discourage bears from visiting. He recommended removing Solo and her cubs and phasing out the research (click here to read the email).
The committee met regularly over the next 3 months. It overcame initial divisiveness and reached consensus on "Living with Bears in Eagles Nest Township" (click here to read the 11-page document). It was a thoughtful, landmark document that could serve as a model for many rural communities.
Meanwhile, the wolves moved out of Solo's territory in mid-August, about the time of the town meeting, and Solo abandoned Walsh Road to forage away from people. People wondered what we had done to alleviate the problem, not realizing that we were simply studying Solo, not controlling her. In October, Solo and the cubs returned to Walsh Road and denned under an unoccupied house owned by one of the petitioners. The owner would have never known the bears were there if we hadn't foolishly notified her. Big mistake. She demanded the DNR remove the bears and if the DNR decided to kill them, she would not question it. It would have been a simple matter to run the bears out from under the house, but the DNR had other ideas.
On December 10, the town board unanimously approved the recommendations of the Community Bear Committee. Two days later, Lynn Rogers received a certified letter from the DNR (click here to read letter) stating they would kill Solo and "possibly relocate" her cubs. We were given the option of putting Solo and her cubs in the Bear Center pen provided we never released them or transferred them to another facility. With 3 bears already living there, the DNR was giving us an option they knew we couldn't accept.
There was a huge outcry of support for Solo from the Eagles Nest Community and throughout the state. The Community Bear Committee was incensed that their months of hard work had not even been considered in the DNR decision. Many outraged citizens wrote to DNR officials and their State Representatives (click here to read one letter). The theme of the letters was that this gentle bear had never threatened or hurt anyone and she had done nothing worse than eating from bird feeders that shouldn't be up in the summer if people don't want to see bears. The result was a pardon from Governor Pawlenty. However, the DNR insisted that calm Solo was "abnormal" and a danger to the public. They decreed she and her cubs had to be placed in captivity. We wrote well-reasoned recommendations for handling Solo (click here to read our recommendations), and the Mayor of Ely and a County Commissioner passed them to the DNR. The DNR did not respond. The DNR also did not respond to Dan Humay, Chairman of the Town Board and Chairman of the Community Bear Committee. The DNR obviously misinterpreted Solo's behavior, and all appeals for reason fell on deaf ears.
The DNR considered sending Solo and her cubs to Bear Country USA in South Dakota where the owners had 65 gall bladders in their freezer from bears they killed in their care. Lynn Rogers and Donna Phelan called Oswald's Bear Ranch in Newberry, Michigan, to see if the bears might be safer there. Owner Dean Oswald interrupted their story to say the bears were scheduled to arrive there on January 14. We resigned ourselves to losing Solo and her cubs and the research opportunities they represented.
We were not prepared for the DNR's swat-team tactics on January 14. Over a dozen people and a huge black German shepherd ‘bear dog' arrived at 5:30 AM. Neighbors alerted us and others. By the time we arrived at 6:30 AM, Solo and one of her drugged cubs were already in crates. While Dan Humay eloquently told a Conservation Officer what he thought of their tactics, we heard the crash of a tree falling. The captors had cut down a 55-foot birch tree with the second cub in the top of it. The tree fell into a ravine, catapulting the cub down the rocky slope.
We watched as they hauled this cub out on a carrying tarp and placed her in a lighted trailer to work on her. Workers deliberately blocked our view. Someone asked for pliers, which could mean the tranquilizer dart had penetrated the abdomen or she had been impaled on a branch during the fall. We asked why they needed pliers. The captors ignored our questions. After 12 minutes, they slid the cub into a crate, continuing to block our view. We asked to see her, and they refused. The DNR press release claimed the cubs were captured unharmed, which seems unlikely from what we saw.
After the vehicle and bears left for Michigan, we learned that the bears were not under the house when the DNR arrived. The air in the crawlspace smelled of pepper spray and the bears had left the property and made a bed on a nearby hill. Evidently, someone had evicted the bears from under the house. Passions ran high in the neighborhood, and we assume someone tried to save the bears from capture and a life in captivity.
Today, five days later, we learned from Oswald's Bear Ranch that the bears arrived alive. We will check for further news. The community is talking about asking for an independent examination.
Along with community leaders, we hope to meet with DNR officials to learn why they refused to return phone calls and emails from township officials and researchers and why they decided to remove Solo without talking to anyone familiar with her personality. We hope cooperation will improve between the DNR and the community and between the DNR and research and that they will allow the community to proceed with their plans for coexisting with bears without the DNR stepping in to "protect the public" the next time a calm bear appears at someone's bird feeder. The DNR web site says that bears will not be removed for eating from bird feeders. The site says that land owners are expected to remove attractants if they don't want to see bears. We hope they will follow their own advice the next time they get a complaint about a bear at a bird feeder or passing through a yard in Eagles Nest Township.
Video footage for high-speed access users
Click here for video footage shot during the capture of Solo and her cubs.
Click here for video footage of Solo growing up.