Uncommon visitors becoming more common?

Jason Homiston took this picture of a black bear with his trail camera at his Aspen Hills property just outside of Spearfish. Courtesy photo

SPEARFISH — A small bear that was spotted in the Mountain Plains subdivision just outside of Spearfish June 24 has been captured again on a game camera.

Jason Homiston owns a parcel in the Aspen Hills subdivision — just a stone’s throw away from the first sighting — and was working on the land last weekend clearing brush. He placed his trail camera in hopes of capturing some of the wildlife that frequent his property.

“We’ve had lots of mountain lions on it, but never any bears,” he said. 

That changed Monday morning at 7 a.m. when he received a text transmitted from his trail camera.

“The text woke me up,” he said. “I thought it would be my neighbor walking his dog.”

Instead of seeing a dog, he saw a small bear.

It appears to be the same bear spotted a week earlier by Patrick Nickles. 

Nickles too was woken by the bear, but instead of a chime from his phone, it was his dog barking at the bear. 

Nickles got up and saw the bear rummaging through his garbage. 

So how often are bears sighted in the Black Hills?

Wildlife officials with the South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks say they receive a handful of reports every year in the Black Hills from residents and visitors alike.

In 2018, a bear was photographed on a trail camera near Rochford.

Julie Bertsch reported to the Pioneer in 2003 spotting a “huge bear” in Mountain Plains while on a trail.

“He came running around the blind corner to me. He was only 10 yards away from me. He came racing around the corner and then put on the skids. He turned around and ran out of sight. I too took off running,” she said at the time.

Bertsch said she thought the bear was at least five feet long if not bigger. “His head stood at my shoulders and I’m 5’4”,” she said. She said a friend reported spotting a bear in Spearfish Canyon just two months before her encounter.

Just across the state line, Wyoming offers black bear hunting, and the occasional bear will be harvested. Bear sightings are rare in the Black Hills, but perhaps they may be occurring a little more frequently. 

Multiple recent sightings of the bear made this reporter reflect on other sightings of species not common to the area.

Mountain lions were once a rarity in South Dakota and were once protected; however, their population has grown exponentially and sightings are frequent throughout the Black Hills. Occasionally, one will wander into town creating a new frenzy of sighting reports. 

Mountain lions in the Black Hills have reached a population point where sub-adult animals are ranging out on their own throughout the country. Verified sightings have occurred in Nebraska, Oklahoma, Illinois, and even as far away as Connecticut where a lion was killed by a vehicle in 2011. DNA tests matched it to the Black Hills’ population of cats – about 1,500 miles away from where it was killed.

Wolves have been spotted throughout the Hills from time to time.

In 2015 Lance Verhulst shot a video of a wolf he reported was in the Black Hills.

In 2014, Spearfish residents Pete McNamee, and Jack and Mary Sty all reported spotting wolves in Spearfish. 

McNamee said at the time the animals looked, “much thicker and sturdier than a coyote,” while Jack Sty said the animals were two-and-a-half times larger than coyotes.

“I am 100 percent sure they were wolves,” he added. “I’ve seen wolves up in Minnesota. I’ve seen black and gray wolves out West.”

Assistant Police Chief Curt Jacobs said at the time police officers were called to the scene and did not see the animals. They did find tracks they officers thought were made by a dog or coyote. However, Jack said he later saw tracks from a deer kill site, near where the animals were seen and reported them to be about four inches long as opposed to coyotes that are about 2.5 inches long.

Over the years there have been wolves killed in South Dakota. About 15 years ago, a wolf was killed in Harding County. In 2006, a wolf was killed by the Black Hills National Cemetery. In 2012 a wolf was killed near Pine Ridge. The list goes on.

DNA taken from the animals indicate that wolves do come to the area from both the Yellowstone and Minnesota populations.

Joe Sandrini, a biologist with the Wyoming Game and Fish, recently recalled a rare encounter with an animal in the Gillette area.

“About 10 years ago or so a rancher was finding sheep killed,” Sandrini said.  “The Game and Fish was having a heck of a time finding out what killed the sheep.”

It wasn’t until a man from Alaska examined the sheep that they discovered that it was a wolverine to blame.

“Then, it just disappeared,” Sandrini said. 

The closest population of wolverines would be in northwest Wyoming.

He said there was an opossum that was struck by a vehicle near Newcastle. A theory there may be that the animal rode a train up from Texas before it found its demise.

Over the years, he said, other odd animals have been sighted.

“We get occasional reports of people seeing fishers and lynx. We even had a report of a ringtail (cat),” he said.

He said some of those reports come from people he considers reliable, but as with all animal sightings, nothing is confirmed unless there is physical evidence – a photo, tracks, etc.

It’s not just mammals that produce the rare sighting reports. 

In July 2010 a bird that typically lives in Mexico, and Central and South America, was spotted in Spearfish Canyon at Iron Creek.

Birders flocked (pun intended) to the area to get a glimpse of the male orange-billed nightingale-thrush.

Numerous birders spotted and recorded the song of the bird.

So what do all these animals have in common?

Most are younger animals that were likely pushed out of their homes by older and more dominant animals of their species.

Will the Black Hills ever have breeding populations of these animals?

Well, perhaps. Time will tell. Wolves, black bears, and even the much larger grizzly bears once called the Black Hills home.

But Emmett Keyser, the assistant director of the Division of Wildlife for the South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks previously told the Pioneer there is not suitable habitat for the large predators in the state.

“Not with the presence of people in the Black Hills, the livestock, and pets, and the huge potential for conflict,” Keyser said. 

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