Bear necessities: Thousands follow Bruno's journey south

By Herald-Whig
Posted: Jul. 3, 2020 12:01 am

QUINCY -- He hasn't reached the global popularity of Smokey, Yogi or Baloo, and his story isn't playing out in a public service announcement, a cartoon or a movie.

It's happening in some of our own backyards.

That's making Bruno a bear beyond compare.

The American black bear is on a search for something -- most likely a mate -- and it has taken him on a 400-mile trek from Wisconsin to Missouri in which he passed through Iowa and the Illinois counties of Hancock, Brown, Adams and Pike in the past week.

He crossed the Mississippi River near Clarksville, Mo., on Wednesday and was seen near the railroad tracks south of Elsberry on Thursday.

His most likely destination is the Mark Twain National Forest, which is 1.5 million acres of public land with the bulk of the forested area between Rolla and Cape Girardeau. There are an estimated 150-200 black bears living in Missouri, mostly south of Interstate 44 with some in the national forest region.

"This is definitely an anomaly because we have never had one traverse Illinois like this," said Stefanie Fitzsimons, a wildlife biologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources who studies large carnivores. "We've never seen a bear on such a straight due south trajectory like this. He has not swayed from his southern trajectory.

"It's a very strange, but neat event,"

It's captivated everyone every step of the way.

"Sure, you can see a bear in the zoo, but to see a bear in the wild and to see a bear in your area, it is so crazily unique," said Margo Webb, a Pike County resident who shared a video on Facebook of Bruno in a field near El Dara. "I definitely wanted to be a part of that. I wanted to see it with my own eyes. I'm sure everybody else wanted the same thing."

To have it actually happen was awe-inspiring.

"I actually couldn't believe it was true," Webb said. "Before we saw him for the first time, we were lucky enough to be behind a conservation officer, and he was telling us stories about different things that have happened along the way.

"It was really cool to hear about how far he'd walked and the hours the conservation officers are working to keep him safe. The whole story is just so cool."

Illinois Conservation Police Officers kept curious on-lookers at a distance throughout his stay in the Land of Lincoln, and they helped the bear navigate his way through heavy traffic and across Interstate 172 as he passed through Pike County.

All the while, a growing online community monitors Bruno's whereabouts and his safety.

More than 24,000 people have joined the Facebook group "Keeping Bruno Safe," where they are sharing photos, video and information. T-shirts and decals with a bear logo and the slogan are being sold with a percentage of the sales going to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

DNR wildlife biologists and government officials and conservationists from all states have used the information posted to that page to study Bruno's travel patterns.

"He has such a large social media following that we really have had to be on bear security because he's like a rock star and everyone wants to come out and see him," Fitzsimons said. "People aren't really practicing the be bear aware tactics we've been talking about. They're getting way too close.

"We've been trying to get across to the public to leave this bear alone and let him do his bear thing. This bear was an angel while he was in Illinois. There were no property conflicts and there were no human conflicts."

His relatively mild demeanor endeared Bruno to the social media herd beyond expectation.

"I think all anyone wants is to see him get to wherever he is going safely so he can live happily," said Jacob Phillip, a conservationist who studied large carnivores at the University of Wisconsin-Plateville and has tracked Bruno's travels through social media posts since the journey began. "It's been amazing to see the response from people throughout every state.

"They are captivated by him, seem to fall head over heels for him and genuinely care about his safety."

That continues to be the case as he heads on what appears to be the final leg of this incredible journey.


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