A funny thing happened as Maple Grove resident Stan Liedman chatted recently in his back yard with a neighbor about bears in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. His friend suddenly stopped talking and stared at the woods behind them.
"He says to me, 'There's a bear standing right there,' " Liedman said. "It was standing in the woods about 100 feet away, looking at us."
The 170-pound black bear stayed long enough for Liedman to take pictures of it climbing a tree and for police to see it.
Liedman's sighting last month is a first for Maple Grove, police say. But he is among dozens of people who have called authorities this spring about bears roving the Twin Cities' northern edge from Maple Grove to the St. Croix River.
Last week, a mother bear and her two cubs came close enough to a Catholic school in Forest Lake that students were told to stay out of the surrounding woods. And a trio of 2-year-old bears also has been seen patrolling the city.
Rural areas on the metro's northern end are generating more bear calls this year, said Jim LaBarre, assistant wildlife manager of the north metro area for the state Department of Natural Resources.
LaBarre, who works at the Carlos Avery Wildlife Refuge across Interstate Hwy. 35 from Forest Lake, said the refuge has fielded more than 25 calls about bears this spring.
He said people in the area occasionally have spotted bears in winter, and he thinks some hibernate in the northern areas of Anoka and Washington counties. In spring, they start foraging for food before their natural snacks of acorns and berries ripen, he said.
Twin Cities-area authorities have reported no serious trouble with bears, cougars or other wild animals, which certainly aren't new to the metro area. Jason Jensen, a DNR officer for northern Washington County, said he gets monthly calls from people who believe they have seen a cougar or black panther.
As for black bears, "the only damage is wrecked bird feeders," LaBarre said. They grab a suet feeder "like a tube of toothpaste and squeeze suet out the top. And they leave a calling card on the driveway."
Minnesota's bear population estimate has been stable since 1997 -- 20,000 to 30,000 animals -- but bear territory is expanding south toward the Twin Cities and west toward North Dakota, said Dave Garshelis, a DNR bear researcher. He said the last serious bear injury was in September 2003, when a Grand Marais woman was bitten after entering her garage to find a 155-pound mother and two cubs eating seeds.
Maple Grove police said two bear sightings last month -- at Liedman's home near the Champlin border and near Maple Grove High School -- were a first. "I've been here for 20 years, and I don't remember ever hearing about one before," Chief Mona Dohman said. Champlin police said they've had four bear calls, probably about the same animal.
Linda Kellner of Oak Grove, in northern Anoka County, has been battling bears over her bird feeders for the past three years. Bears flattened the feeder pole, so she and her boyfriend built a concrete base for a 2-inch diameter steel pole with the feeder perched up about 12 feet.
"He still pushes it over, even with six bags of cement in it," Kellner said. She said they woke about 2:30 a.m. one night in mid-May to see a big bear and a smaller bear sitting on the ground with the feeder. "We screamed and yelled and they took off," Kellner said.
A week later, the smaller bear returned, and when Kellner yelled, it ran behind her lawn mower shed. It peeked back at her before lumbering into the woods.
Oak Grove residents have called about bears nearly a dozen times this spring, said area DNR officer Travis Muyres.
"Bears are like walking stomachs," DNR officer Jensen said. "A bear is a very hungry animal at all times. ... I've been getting calls for the past two weeks about bears in Scandia or Forest Lake hitting bird or suet feeders and sometimes beehives." He advised people to take in their bird feeders at night and not to put out trash until the morning it's collected.
A mother bear and her two cubs entertained dozens of motorists for several hours last week while sitting and playing in and near a big oak tree by busy Hwy. 97, north of Forest Lake High School, said officer Tom Hagert. He said the mother took a nap in the tree.
About 100 yards away, teachers at St. Peter Catholic School heard about the bears and restricted recess, said Principal John Mooney. "We told the kids not to go in the shrubbery or woods, because we had no idea where she would go," he said, noting it was the school's first "bear alert."
Cashier Ben Larson at nearby Lakes Conoco on Hwy. 97 walked over to look at the three bears in the tree, where people were watching and taking pictures. He said the bears increased Conoco's business a bit.
"Some people were worried about them being this close to town," he said. "I thought it was kind of cool. You keep your space, and they leave you alone."
Jim Adams is at email@example.com.