The world’s oldest wild bear is a well-known resident of the Bigfork-Marcel area of northern Minnesota, and the Department of Natural Resources is working to keep it that way.
The elderly female bruin has the unlikely moniker of “No. 56,” due to the numbered tag she was given when radio-collared by researchers. She was first tagged in 1981, when she was a mere 7 years old, and has typically been checked in on every three years.
While bears in captivity can live into their forties, researchers are anxious to follow this particular bear through her remaining years. “We’ve never seen a wild bear die of old age,” said Karen Noyce of the DNR. “It’s just extremely rare. We’re not going to crack any secrets, but it’s so rare to get an opportunity to watch a wild animal age normally.”
But with old age comes vision and hearing loss, as well as a decreased abilities to traverse the bear’s natural habitat. So No. 56 is often seen traveling down roads and paths, and could more easily come in harm’s way.
“She lives in an area with a fair amount of room and few roads, and she hasn’t been prone to come to houses as a nuisance bear, or to hunters’ bait,” Noyce said. “That’s what’s changed recently. Suddenly in the last couple years she’s been seen a lot, because clearly she’s not able to navigate in the woods as well.”
The bear has feasted at hunters’ bait sites in recent years, but hunters have honored the DNR’s request to let her live. (Shooting radio-collared research bears isn’t illegal, but the DNR asks hunters to avoid shooting them.)
“Most hunters up here know about her,” the DNR’s Joyce Hansen said. The bear has attained something of a legendary status. “Everyone seems to brag when she comes into their bait,” he said.
Find out more about this record-setting bear and how local hunters can help.
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Photo: Minnesota DNR