David Hoppe

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:: Our first black bear since 1871

by David Hoppe

In Chicago, Blackhawks fans are tracking the Stanley Cup, pro hockey’s championship trophy, as it is carried around town for folks to see and touch and even kiss. People who want to track the Cup’s progress in real time can do so via a special app provided by the Chicago Tribune.

Here in Northwest Indiana, we’re tracking bigger game. A young wild black bear was reported in St. Joseph County, near South Bend, over the weekend. Since this is the first time a wild bear has been on the loose in Indiana in over 140 years, the news was at first greeted with some incredulity. Perhaps it had escaped from a zoo or traveling circus, like the leopard in that old Cary Grant-Katherine Hepburn movie, Bringing Up Baby.

Then the bear left a pile of you-know-what in somebody’s driveway. After experts from Indiana’s Department of Natural Resources checked out the bear’s scat, as it’s called, they confirmed that, yes, this bear was wild, all right.

A DNR spokesperson said the bear must have wandered across our state line from Michigan, where black bears number somewhere between 15,000 and 19,000.

With numbers like these, the DNR’s Mitch Marcus told the Associated Press they’d been expecting a bear to eventually show up in Indiana. Still: “It’s quite unusual and exciting for a Michigan lakeshore black bear to move this far south,” he said, adding that the bear would probably head back to where he (it was a he, we were assured) came from.

That might have been the end of it. But there was more news on Monday, when the bear was tracked heading westward. “Definitely a bear track,” said DNR wildlife biologist Bud Veverka after seeing photographs taken of paw prints found in LaPorte County. Then an off-duty cop saw the bear off Highway 20, on the way to Michigan City.

Since Michigan City is home to Indiana’s Big House, the state penitentiary, this latest sighting had an oddly familiar ring. A few years back a couple of convicts incited a similar search, albeit in the opposite direction, after a prison break. They followed railroad tracks as far as Grand Beach in Michigan, where they were nabbed in the driveway of a summer home belonging to then-Chicago mayor Richard Daley. Thankfully no scat was involved.

News of the bear’s Indiana sojourn was picked up by media outlets in Indianapolis and Chicago. DNR officials from Michigan joined their Indiana colleagues in trying to find the bear and repatriate him to his home state. Everyone in the vicinity was reminded that bears are shy and non-aggressive, protected under Indiana law. Most of us hoped no one would get trigger happy.

Indiana talks a lot about its need to attract and retain talented young newcomers. Our governor has launched a $2 million ad campaign to try and make us seem more welcoming. It’s funny how things have a way of working out. Now how about a black bear app?