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‘Bruno’ the wandering black bear captivated Midwesterners on trek from Wisconsin to Missouri
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‘Bruno’ the wandering black bear captivated Midwesterners on trek from Wisconsin to Missouri

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ST. LOUIS — “Bruno,” a wild black bear who gained a nickname and a large following on social media as he wandered from Wisconsin to Missouri over the past month, stirred ursine interest — and lingering questions — even after his journey ended Sunday with a tranquilizer dart and a state-led relocation effort.

Perhaps the biggest curiosity: How common is it for a black bear to make a trek of that distance?

Some experts say it could be unprecedented.

“It sounds like a record to me. I’m not aware of anything that’s near that length,” said Dave Garshelis, a research biologist and black bear expert with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “We’ve had some in Minnesota that are maybe near 100 miles.”

Bruno was not collared with any sort of tracking device, so his true point of origin is unclear. But if he is a Wisconsin native, he likely started in the central or northern part of the state, where the vast majority of its bear population is concentrated, said David Drake, a professor and extension wildlife specialist with the University of Wisconsin.

That would put the odometer for Bruno’s trip at a minimum of about 450 miles.

Though a remarkable distance, some say it’s not inconceivable for a black bear.

“It’s probably one of those things that is not common but not out of the realm of possibility,” said Laura Conlee, a state biologist and bear expert for the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC). “One thing we do know from collared bears is they can move pretty long distances.”

She mentioned one instance of a black bear traveling from southwestern Missouri to Warren County, just west of where Bruno made it — a trip of a couple hundred miles. She noted that mountain lions can regularly wander into Missouri from across the Great Plains, and that, in recent years, even gray wolves have occasionally been confirmed in the state, likely after coming from the Great Lakes region.

Bruno adds another exciting example to the list.

“It just highlights the impressive ability of wildlife to move across the landscape,” Conlee said.

Bruno’s fanbase no longer will be able to chart his progress, since MDC officials whisked him to a safer — but undisclosed — natural environment, away from the hazards of the St. Louis metropolitan area.

“The possibility of him getting safely out of there was pretty low,” Conlee said. “He was taken to suitable bear habitat near that area, outside of the urban corridor.”

A healthy bear

Besides its sheer length, Bruno’s trek might be all the more remarkable because he may be on the older side for a roaming male black bear.

“He was a very mature bear,” said Sherri Russell, MDC wildlife veterinarian. “We’re estimating older than 4.” 

Age can typically be determined by extracting a special tooth that bears don’t need for chewing. Like counting tree rings, researchers can cut one open, apply a stain, and then look near the root of the tooth to see layers that correspond with each year’s hibernation.

But Russell said that when agents tranquilized Bruno, “We were interested in speed, and as little intervention as possible.” Therefore, they did not collar him, nor take precise measurements of age and weight. (The agency did, however, outfit him with an ear tag for identification.) 

Bruno was sedated for just about two hours before his release, Russell said. “He was very healthy.… We were ready to help him, but we didn’t need to.”

Black bears that travel long distances are almost always young males, driven away from home by their once-protective mothers and forced to find their own territory. That period of transience typically occurs when the bears are 1 to 3 years old, Garshelis said. A wandering bear older than 4 is unusual, he said, although some young males can stay on the move for three or four years.

“Some can sometimes be up to about 6 years old before they settle down,” said Garshelis.

While some news reports focused on Bruno’s search for a mate, experts said that’s only one reason for a bear to roam. Long-range wayfarers like Bruno probably never intend for such an odyssey.

“It’s kind of like a 16-year-old kid behind the wheel: They don’t always exercise the best judgment,” said Drake, describing young bears.

“I think part of this is bears get lost,” added Garshelis, noting that he is careful not to anthropomorphize the bears’ experience. “They have something in their mind that they envision that they’re going to eventually hit. But then they get lost.”

Garshelis said that a month-plus solo voyage through unfamiliar terrain without finding other bears probably threw Bruno for more of a loop than the tranquilizer.

“The whole journey would be disorienting and confusing,” he said. “The actual drugging, not so much. There’s sort of an amnesic effect of the drugs. You just sort of wake up.”

Journey’s end

Garshelis suspects that Bruno’s adventure may be near its conclusion, assuming the bear was turned loose where others are present. If so, Garshelis thinks he will soon sense that other bears are around “and then hopefully say, ‘This is great, this is what I’ve been looking for. I’m not going any farther.’”

If he’s in the Ozarks, Bruno would not be the first black bear from northern population ranges in the upper Midwest to end up in the area that straddles forested parts of southern Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma — though he might be the first to make it practically on his own accord.

Biologically, similar genes found their way south decades ago. Starting in the 1950s, Arkansas wildlife officials brought in northern black bears from places like Minnesota and Manitoba to launch reintroduction efforts. Prior to that, the species was thought to have been extirpated, or driven to local extinction, throughout the region. Genetic analysis has suggested, however,  that in Missouri a small remnant population clung to existence “in the most remote parts of the Ozarks,” Conlee said.

Last year, she said, Missouri estimated its bear population is between 540 and 840 individuals, and growing at about 9% annually.

With Bruno’s addition, a veritable celebrity would be among their ranks. The bear’s journey generated global headlines, and a massive online audience eager to view photos, videos, and other information about him. A Facebook page dedicated to keeping Bruno safe gained more than 150,000 followers over about three weeks.

Bear experts generally said they were fired up to see Bruno capture the public imagination to such a degree. Some theorized that Bruno’s identity as a specific individual with a unique story accounted for a big part of his appeal.

“That’s what humans relate to,” said Garshelis. “We like stories.”

He said the journey might also reflect shifting public attitudes toward bears, and a growing tolerance for them. In the past, he’s not so sure bears would have been able to make it without getting shot — not to mention having local authorities stop traffic to keep them safe.

“If you go back in time to even 20 years ago, attitudes have changed a lot towards bears,” Garshelis said. “What’s kind of heartwarming is the change in the viewpoint of, ‘Let’s keep that bear alive, and learn about it.’”

That said, Missouri is considering allowing limited black bear hunts in 2021 to stem the animals’ population growth — a proposal that’s drawn sharp criticism, based on public comments received by the state last month.

Bryce Gray • 314-340-8307

@_BryceGray on Twitter

bgray@post-dispatch.com

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