The search is on to rescue a bear wandering Minnesota's North Woods with a plastic ring stuck around its neck — likely a telltale sign that the animal was dumpster-diving for food.
But the bear's dilemma is probably an indication of an even bigger problem: feeding wildlife. And it's pitting neighbors against one another.
North Woods residents and cabin dwellers who revel in getting an up-close view of wildlife are not only feeding birds, but also deer and bear to draw them into their backyards.
That may not sit well with neighbors who prefer wildlife at distance and are irked when deer trample their gardens and shrubs, raccoons rummage through garbage bins and bears lumber too close for comfort.
"There's no law against feeding wildlife," said Tom Rusch, wildlife manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in Tower. "Most people say they're feeding the birds. But when you feed the birds in northern Minnesota, you have the potential of bringing in raccoons and bear. … When you do these things, it pits neighbor against neighbor."
Bears have been known to wander into Minnesota towns for a meal when food is in short supply in the woods. That's not the case this year.
"It's an abnormal year because there are a lot of people feeding bears," Rusch said. And some bears are becoming habituated to grabbing meals to-go from people's backyards.
Feeding deer has become rampant, and deliberately feeding bears has increased over the last decade, he said.
That brings us back to the elusive bear with the plastic ring around its neck.
The DNR has been trying to capture the bruin, dubbed the "Lid Bear," for the past three weeks in hopes of freeing him from his accidental "collar."
"I can't tell you exactly what it is," Rusch said. "It's about an inch thick. It's not a garbage can lid. It's something like from a public waste receptacle that you put drinking cups in."
The bear likely smelled something and stuck its head into the receptacle.
When it lifted his head out, the ring of plastic came off and pushed past his ears.
"It's on there," Rusch added. "I'm sure when it first was on there he tried, probably violently, to get it off."
At this point, it doesn't seem to be physically restricting the bear.
"Some people think he's suffering. He's not," Rusch said. "I would compare it to a collar. It's snug but not tight. It's not choking him."
And it is eating very well and has a nice glossy coat despite the nuisance around his neck. Wildlife officials, however, worry about possible long-term affects.
"No one wants that lid on him," Rusch said. "We're fielding a lot of calls about this bear in particular. Even more on the weekends because more people are up here."
Tracking the bear
Rich Kuzma, a Twin Cities resident who grew up in Ely and frequently visits his cabin there, spotted the bear a couple weeks ago. Kuzma was driving around the rural roads in search of a moose to photograph. Instead, he spotted the bear as it munched grass and got a quick photograph before it scampered back into the woods.
Kuzma doesn't like the idea that bears may be becoming too accustomed to human-assisted feeding.
His grandchildren visit him in Ely and he doesn't want them to encounter a bear that has no fear of humans.
Bears are wild animals no matter how tame they appear while feeding at bird feeders, Kuzma said.
"They're very powerful animals and they're going to protect their young," he said.
So far, the bear hasn't posed a public safety threat. But there's always a fear that could change if it threatens property or people.
For the past few weeks, wildlife officials have tracked the 3- to 4-year-old adult male as it wanders south of Ely among lake homes, cabins and campgrounds.
The bear swims freely, crossing the narrows of lakes, and cruises through yards, stopping to snack at bird feeders and other convenient food options.
"He's habituated to people," Rusch said. "He lacks the normal fear that bears have. That's always our concern. They lose that fear and then they come at all hours of the day."
That's unnerving to some people, such as the campground manager who was livid when he called the DNR because his clients are worried about a not-too-shy bear getting close to children.
"He said, 'You have to do something with that bear. This isn't tolerable,' " Rusch recalled.
Wildlife officials have been moving a trap from place to place as they track the bear and anticipate his next move.
The bear has been in the trap at least three times but never tripped the door closed.
It's rigged with a coffee can filled with a smorgasbord of bear goodies, including black sunflower seeds and honey.
Early on, they put food on the trap's floor to ensure the bear wasn't trap shy.
It ate it and left, Rusch said. The problem is that the bear isn't desperate enough for food that it'll eat from the coffee can.
"He's just not that hungry," Rusch said. "He has unlimited feed. … I want this to be more than Ely has a clown bear. This is a big thing. Is this how we want our bears to behave? That's a social question."