GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Hundreds of years ago, bears were a common sight across West Michigan. In the coming years, they could be once again.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources says the black bear population across the state has risen sharply over the last decade, particularly in the Lower Peninsula. Cody Norton, a bear specialist with the DNR’s Wildlife Division, says that growth is forcing bears to expand their range and find new homes.

“Right now, our estimate is that (the black bear population in the Lower Peninsula) has increased almost 70% since 2012,” Newton told News 8. “Not only has the abundance increased, but the distribution has increased, as well. We’ve got bears expanding into areas where there have not been bears in the recent past.”

Part of that population growth was by design. The balance between the low bear population and other Michigan species was misaligned, so the agency restricted the amount of hunting licenses for bears starting in 2012.

As of 2021, the DNR estimates there are approximately 10,650 black bears in the Upper Peninsula and 2,200 in the Lower Peninsula. Approximately 1,900 bears were allowed to be harvested in 2022 statewide.

The other part is the nature of the black bear. The DNR says female black bears typically have a home range of around 50 square miles and can generally overlap. Male bears generally do not overlap territory and take up much more space, anywhere up to 335 square miles.

Photo credit: Getty Images. Graphic by Matt Jaworowski/WOOD TV8/Visme

The DNR believes the population growth in the Lower Peninsula has started to slow down but wants to see a few more years’ worth of data for confirmation.

“The northern lower is a big region, too. So we could be seeing stabilization in some areas and in other areas, maybe not so much yet,” he said.

Bear hunting is already allowed in three West Michigan counties: Muskegon, Newaygo and Oceana. These counties already have measurable bear populations and Norton said they are among the spots seeing the most growth.

Those three counties are part of the DNR’s Baldwin Bear Management Unit, which covers the northwest section of the Lower Peninsula, stretching down from Grand Traverse County into Muskegon and Newaygo counties.

“That’s one of the areas that we have seen the most growth and the most expansion in recent years,” Norton said. “This year there was a little bit lower level of nuisance complaints. But the previous year, 2021, we actually have more nuisance complaints in the Baldwin unit than the entire Upper Peninsula.”

With black bears slowly moving south, Norton is interested to see how they will adapt to agricultural landscapes that provide a lot of access to food but little shelter.

“Typically, black bears need forests in order to do well. But in Michigan and in other areas, we are starting to see bears colonize and do well in habitats that previously we might not have expected them to do that in,” he said. “In the Gladwin area … bears have typically been kind of stopped right around where it turns to mostly ag. Now we’re starting to see them keep creeping down.”

Michigan has 10 designated Bear Management Units across the state. Those boundaries also roughly share the current black bear range in Michigan. (Courtesy Michigan DNR)

Norton says the most popular areas will be around water and where they can find shelter.

“Along waterways, rivers, things like that where you’re going to have more of a forested habitat that might be more conducive (for bears),” he said. “I think it’s going to be something very interesting for us to watch and see what is enough.”

A rising black bear population could mean more run-ins with the animals, but Norton doesn’t expect it to become a safety issue. Instead, he expects it will be one where more people will just have to learn how to live alongside bears like people in other parts of the state and country do.

“Bear attacks are extremely rare and infrequent. There are certain things that you can do to try to avoid situations like that,” he said. “I think one of the biggest things is just getting rid of food sources near your house. And if you do encounter a bear in the woods, don’t run away. Do like we would with most of our large predators, make yourself look big, face it, don’t turn around, and pick up your kids and dogs so that they don’t run. That kind of thing.”