Mike Peterson, Willow River, Minn.
Mike Peterson, Willow River, Minn.
    WILLOW RIVER, Minn. – Like many farmers, Mike Peterson has been concerned about his crops all year. Drier than normal conditions and an abnormally hot summer has stressed the plants and limited their growth.
    While there was hope of a decent corn yield, another blow to the season was the discovery of bears tearing through the fields, damaging them beyond repair. Because of abnormally high bear visits to his fields, much of the corn is laying on the ground and unable to be harvested.
    “We’ve always had bear trouble. But this is the worst damage we’ve seen,” Peterson said. “It’s almost twice as bad than a normal year.”
    Peterson milks 300 cows with his dad, Stanley, and brother, Matt, in Pine County near Willow River.
    He estimates that only a few of the 40 corn fields, that range from 1 acre to 20 acres, have not had black bears visit.
    “It’s depressing,” Peterson said. “A year like this, you need every ton of forage you can get. There is maybe two or three fields with no damage on them.”
    The Petersons recently started chopping corn silage, and where the bears have been, the harvest is light.
    “If you come along with the chopper, you pick up 5% of where there’s bear damage,” Peterson said. “It’s brown and then it’s wet. It’s knocked over in every which direction.”
    About a month ago, Peterson realized the bears were back in the fields and contacted the game warden who gave him the approval to shoot the bears because of the substantial crop damage. They have since shot a handful of bears but by no means eradicated the problem.
    “It’s usually late evening when they come,” Peterson said. “You can’t see them in the woods. You can’t see them in the corn fields. That’s the problem.”
    During the day, the bears are usually in old pastures with tall reed canary grass; at night, they take to the fields.
    With the Petersons’ OK and the game warden’s permission, nuisance bear licenses have been extended to anyone who has been interested.
    “Two have hunted a couple times,” Peterson said. “They saw one but haven’t shot. Some other hunters say they are coming.”
    The damage the Petersons have is extensive. In some areas, most of the corn is laying on the soil 24 rows wide and more than that distance long.
    “They sit down, and they pull in as far as they can reach,” Peterson said. “You’ll have 8- to 10-foot circles pulled into a shock. They eat the cobs. If they don’t like it, they knock down another pile. They keep going until they find something they like to eat. Then they move over and do it again.”
    Peterson speculates that because of the dry summer, the bears’ normal menu, acorns and berries, are limited and leave the bears to search elsewhere for food.  
    “This year, neighbors have had them in the yards, the garbage cans,” Peterson said. “There’s nothing else to eat.”
    Peterson’s dad recently purchased a drone to get a better view of the damage and to hopefully find the path of where the bears enter and exit to assist the hunters in getting their game.
    “Once they get on the corn, it’s hard to bait them with anything else,” Peterson said. “They like that sweet corn, milky stage.”
    Peterson said the bears, from cubs to mature size, weigh anywhere from 50-400 pounds.  
    “The biggest we got was 345 pounds, a normal year that would’ve been 400 pounds,” Peterson said. “I’ve got a couple, my brother has a couple and uncle has a couple, all this year. If they’re young, we’ll eat it. If not, I’ll give it away.”
    Peterson hopes continued hunting will limit the bears and increase harvest.
    “They’re hungry,” he said. “If there’s corn, there’s a problem.”