Jon Ross, a technician with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, is a skeptical man.
So when I called him and told him I'd found what appeared to be black bear tracks, I'm sure he thought he might be heading out on a wild goose chase.
“You wouldn't believe how many times I've gone to check on a mountain lion report and it turned out to be a tabby cat,” Ross said.
To be honest, I didn't believe it myself when I found the tracks.
Yet after seeing my pictures and looking at the tracks, which had degraded as the snow melted during the past week's warm weather, Ross confirmed that it was indeed a black bear that had walked through the snow in rural Mills County in Iowa, less than an hour drive from downtown Omaha.
“It's definitely a bear,” Ross said.
After looking at the evidence, Ross guessed the bear could weigh more than 200 pounds.
I was paying close attention to some tracks on the north side of the timber where the snow hadn't melted. I noticed tracks from a few small deer that had been through earlier and heading into the timber I planned to hunt.
I slowed down, moving as quietly as a clumsy, 250-pound man wearing cold-weather hunting boots can move in case they were bedded nearby. And then I came to a complete stop.
There in the snow were tracks I didn't recognize. Large, about six inches from the five extended claws to the base of the paw.
I took a few photos with my cellphone and continued to follow the tracks through the snow. Big cats have been seen in the area, but these weren't like any cat tracks I'd ever seen.
I got home and showed the photo to a few people. The consensus was that it was a black bear. I was still unsure, so I called Ross and asked if he would take a look.
Ross knows bears. He was born in Washington and is an experienced bear hunter.
Ross checked the tracks, noticing not only the extended claw marks but the alignment of the tracks.
“I've seen some crazy things,” Ross said. “Nothing surprises me at all.”
It turns out that while it is rare that bears are seen in Iowa, it is not unheard of. Bears have been sighted several times in the state, although mostly in the northeast corner.
Bears have also been killed in Iowa, including one five years ago in Fremont County that had been repeatedly returning to a residence near Wabonsie State Park.
Vince Evelsizer, a furbearer biologist with the Iowa DNR, wrote about black bears in the 2012 report, “Trends in Iowa Wildlife Populations and Harvest.”
“Black bear sightings are usually more reliable than mountain lion sightings because they do not necessarily flee when sighted. Also bear tracks are very distinct, and they are not readily mistaken for other animals,” Evelsizer wrote.
The DNR's official stance is that while bears are not protected by state law, they strongly discourage shooting or harassing them.
In the report, Evelsizer said: “When possible we should discourage the indiscriminate killing of black bears unless there are concerns for human, pets or livestock safety. Human tolerance will be the deciding factor as to whether black bears could ever be re-established in Iowa.”
Ross said the bear is probably still in the area. Bears hibernate during the winter months, but occasionally leave their dens in search of food on warm days.
I was asked not to reveal the location of the tracks to protect the bear and at the wishes of the landowner. The location is remote and the bear poses no threat to humans.
In the spring, the bear will most likely move on. It will either go north to Minnesota or Wisconsin, or south to Missouri, where the bear most likely came from, Ross said.