Tens of thousands of black bears roam Wisconsin and yet to see one up close is rare. Jeff Traska has the good fortune of having bear encounters on a daily basis. His love affair with bears started more than 35 years ago while hunting. A bear ran past his tree stand and instead of taking aim, Traska scampered down the tree and ran after it. From that chance encounter, he went from chasing bears to chasing a dream. Traska says, “I had to make a decision if I was going to be hunting and harvest one of these animals, or if I was going to learn more. I decided I am going to put my bow down, and I’m just gonna do my own research stuff.”
The research now happens just steps from Jeff’s back door where he created the Wisconsin Black Bear Education Center east of Wausau. It’s a not-for-profit private bear sanctuary. He’s created seven acres of natural habitat where his bears can roam with a pond, meadows and lots of tall trees. It is one of the largest, most natural bear facilities in the United States. Traska says, “We want to replicate as much of nature as possible. I want people to come and see the animal, in the most natural atmosphere that they can. They’re not walking on concrete. They’re walking on dirt surfaces.”
It’s a daily routine for Traska to enter the bear enclosure and check on his bears. He’s been bitten, scratched and when he analyzes the situations, Traska says it was always a result of his action, not the bear’s aggressive nature. Traska says, “I’ve never gone in there and had one of the bears just come up to me and go, ‘I’m going to bite him today, and that’s just the way it’s going to be.’”
Each of his four bears comes with a personality and a past. Vince is the oldest. From day one, he’s been shy. Traska rescued him from a breeding facility and raised him with a bottle. Then there’s brother and sister, Sunny and Moon and the youngest bear is Sky. He arrived when he was a year and a half old after his mother was killed.
Part of Traska’s research is to take the fear out of bear encounters. Traska says, “People have the impression bears are walking around through the woods with blood dripping out of their mouth, waiting for the next hiker to come along.” His mission it to educate visitors so when they come across a bear in the wild, their first instinct isn’t to run. “A black bear is nothing more than a couple hundred-pound grey squirrel. That’s all it is. It’s just looking to find food to survive and make it through the winter,” Traska says.
Despite all that he has accomplished for his bears and the public, Traska is not done yet. “I’ve made this commitment to take care of these animals for the rest of my life.” That commitment includes turning another 40 acres into a bear rehab facility where he can take care of injured orphan bears and release them into the wild. Traska says, “I’ve learned a lot so far. But just think how smart I’ll be when I’m 100.”