The report of a black bear near Keystone earlier this month wasn't smoke and mirrors. It was light and shadows.
But the fact that the report by a tourist family turned out not to be a bear doesn't mean it isn't possible, or even probable.
It's likely that bears do wander into South Dakota's portion of the Black Hills from time to time, wildlife officials say. And a state Game, Fish & Parks Department game specialist in Rapid City won't be surprised to see them more regularly in the future.
John Kanta is talking about black bears, now, rather than grizzlies.
"All around us we've had black bear activity," Kanta said. "With all the sightings around us, I think it's only a matter of time before we have a black bear show up here and maybe set up residence."
Wildlife officials have verified bear sightings and tracks in the area in recent years. A black bear was captured two years ago in the Bear Lodge Mountains of the Black Hills National Forest near Sundance, Wyo. And wildlife officers found another just across the southern border of South Dakota near Harrison, Neb.
Joe Sandrini, a biologist with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department in Newcastle, said the Bear Lodge Mountains bear was captured near Warren Peak.
"That bear had been getting into bee hives," Sandrini said. "He was moved back to the western side of the state."
The bear likely came from the Bighorn Mountains, although biologists can't say for sure. Bears also are believed to migrate east out of the Laramie Mountains farther south in Wyoming. Bear tracks were verified in the Bear Lodge Mountains last year, Sandrini said. And bears have turned up in Gillette, Lusk and "in the sagebrush north and west of Douglas" in recent years, he said.
"And this spring, we've had a couple of unverified but probable reports of a bear up in that Little Missouri (River) country, just off the Bear Lodge and to the west," Sandrini said. "There's a chance, pretty good chance, that we had maybe one or two running around up there this year. Where they came from I don't know."
Despite regular visits from bears, there's no evidence of an established population in Wyoming's portion of the Black Hills, Sandrini said. Neither is there such evidence in the Black Hills on the South Dakota side.
But that doesn't mean it couldn't happen, Kanta said.
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"I certainly think we have the habitat here to support a small bear population," he said.
Kanta admits that not everyone agrees with him on that. Some argue that the Black Hills doesn't have sufficient food supplies for black bears. But Kanta thinks there is a suitable mix of berries, other types of vegetation, moths and other insects to sustain a few omnivorous black bears in the Black Hills.
The larger question will be how to handle them. The mix of private and public land and rural developments could lead some bears into trouble in the Black Hills, Kanta said.
"If we had one show up here, we'd try to track it, observe it and see if it's going to set up shop," Kanta said. "If it started to become a problem, we'd certainly have to address that. And I'm not sure what we'd do."
GF&P does have traps that it can use to capture bears. And it's prepared to do that. Beyond that, it doesn't have a set policy for handling them.
There were reports last year of a sow bear with cubs up near Roughlock Falls in Spearfish Canyon.
"It turned out to be crevices in the rocks or shadows," Kanta said. "If you use your imagination, they look like bears."
The most recent confirmation of a bear in South Dakota actually came in the far northeast corner of the state in Roberts County. The bear likely came from Minnesota.
"That bear was actually a concern for us, because it did go into a garage and broke into a freezer and was rummaging through that," Kanta said. "That bear -- we're assuming it was the same one, anyway -- was ultimately killed up in North Dakota, near the state line. It was trying to crawl into a house through a window, and the homeowner shot it."
Contact Kevin Woster at 394-8413 or kevin.woster@rapidcityjournallcom