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Black Bear Haven or Heaven
by Dr. Leonard Lee Rue III

Do you know the meaning of the word EUREKA? It's from the Greek word HEUREKA meaning "I have found it", and that best expresses my heartfelt sentiments when I first discovered the Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary, owned and operated by The American Bear Association in Orr, Minnesota. It is, without a doubt, the best place on the continent to photograph black bears. I know because I've been photographing, or trying to photograph, black bears for most of my life.

My home area of northwestern New Jersey has a black bear population estimated at about 2,000. In fact, we have so many bears, and not really enough good habitat for them, that they are becoming a nuisance in many areas. Most folks have to take their bird feeders down every night or the bears will smash them down to get at the bird seed which they love. Am I able to get lots of bear photographs here at home? No way, José! The bears do most of their traveling and depredations under the cover of darkness.

Pennsylvania has one of the largest bear populations in the country but because they allow the bears to be hunted it's almost impossible to find bears to photograph there.

I have had good luck photographing black bears in The Great Smoky Mountain National Park, but finding them is sporadic because the bears shift their range according to the prevailing mast crop.

Annan Creek on the coast of Alaska is famous for black bears but you have to fly there or go in by boat and that's expensive.

The black bears at the Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary are as close to an ironclad guarantee as you will ever find in wildlife photography. Not that the sanctuary has been set up as a photographic preserve because it has not. The sanctuary was set up to protect bears and its main objective is to be an education center for the general public. The sanctuary's goal is to inform as many people as they possibly can about the true nature of the American black bear and the bear's place in the natural ecosystem. It's a job that they are doing exceedingly well, as the 28,000 visitors that enjoyed their facilities in 2002 will attest. The sanctuary is open to the general public, free of charge, from 5 p. m. until dark six days a week, Tuesday through Sunday, from Memorial Day through Labor Day.

Although there is no charge to the public to visit the sanctuary, donations are accepted, and needed, to provide for the large quantity of food that is placed out continuously that attracts the 80 plus bears to the area. It was the food that first brought the bears to the area. Vince Shute got the bears so tame that they would take food from his hand. No bears are hand-fed today, but it is the endless amount of high protein, high carbohydrate food that has kept the large concentration of bears coming in for generations. The public is restricted to the huge L shaped viewing platform that is raised about twelve feet off the ground.

Although the sanctuary is not primarily set up for photographers, it is becoming a Mecca for us. There is no place that I know of where a photographer can get more portrait, natural history or behavioral photographs of bears than at the sanctuary. In my three days spent there in 2001 and again in 2002, I took more black bear photographs than I have anyplace else on the continent in all of my 57 years as a professional wildlife photographer.

For a low daily fee of $150.00, photographers can shoot from 7:00 a. m. until 5:00 p. m. After 5:00 p. m. you can still do photography, but you must shoot from the viewing platform with the general public. Before 5:00 p. m., photographers can walk about anywhere in the meadow among the bears, and it's not uncommon to have a dozen or more bears there at any given time.

Where you have a lot of bears, you have a lot of interaction. The sows bring their new cubs with them when they come in to feed. It is a known fact that big male bears often kill cubs. If a sow is not nursing she is more likely to come in estrus and thus to be bred. The sows are instinctively aware of this danger and so park their cubs up in a tree while they feed. When the sow comes into the meadow, she gives a soft coughing grunt that sends her little ones scrambling aloft, as sure-footed as squirrels. And there the cubs remain, clambering about or draped over a limb sleeping, until mom has eaten her fill, calls the cubs down and takes them off into the surrounding forest. The elapsed time is often three to four hours and those hours offer unequaled photographic opportunities. At one time this past June, there was one set of quadruplets, two sets of triplets and one set of twin cubs in the trees, within sight, at one time. It was not a question of what to photograph, but of what I should photograph first. Being greedy, I photographed them all, but concentrated on the quads because, although it's not unusual for black bears to have four cubs at a time, it's just not that common either.

It's not just the new cubs that scramble up the trees. The 1˝ and the 2˝ year old bears are also afraid of the big males. Perhaps I shouldn't use the word afraid, but should say that these young bears use "extreme caution". 

Whatever term is proper, the result is the same; when a big bear approaches, the young bears scramble up a tree and stay there until the big male leaves the area.

Although I was able to walk around the meadow, and my wife and I did, we did the bulk of our shooting from the viewing platform. Except for the many feeding stations, everything in the meadow is kept as natural as possible. This means that the wild grasses growing in the meadow remain uncut. As the grasses grow to a height of 18" - 24", if you shoot from ground level, you often obscure 2/3 of a bear walking through the grass. 

By using long lenses and shooting down from the platform, we could show most of the bear's body and legs. Another plus is that many of the trees that the cubs and young bears scramble up are close to the platform and that puts the bears almost on eye-level, and that's an angle that is almost impossible to get anywhere else.

In addition to the bears, the sanctuary provides many other photographic possibilities. At many points along the viewing platform the staff has put out hummingbird feeders and seed feeders. Again, because of the platform's height, I have been able to get superb photos of male ruby-throated hummingbirds perched at eye level. Goldfinches, purple finches, evening grosbeaks, blue jays, chickadees and nuthatches, both red-breasted and white-breasted, flock to the feeders. Eastern chipmunks and red squirrels are all over the place.

If you want to simply see the bears and learn more about them, all you have to do is to show up at the times I've already listed. If you want to do some of the greatest photography of your lifetime, you need to make an appointment. Contact Kim McGrath, the ABA Executive Director, before you go 

Kim McGrath
ABA Executive Director
P. O. Box 77 
Orr, MN 55771 
phone 218 - 757 - 0172

You may visit their website anytime at Orr is off the beaten path, but then that's where you have to go to get wild bears in their natural habitat. It will take some effort on your part to get there, but then so does everything else in life that's really worthwhile. Make the effort and you will be rewarded beyond your wildest dreams; we were.

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