Senate to vote on bear bill

NEWBERRY – The Michigan Senate is expected to vote today on a bill that would allow certain facilities – including Oswald’s Bear Ranch near Newberry – to let the public pet and take photographs with bear cubs.

The bill was introduced in January by state Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, and Howard Walker, R-Traverse City. After prior Senate approval, the bill was passed in the House Thursday by a 56-52 vote. The Senate will now reconsider the bill today, approving any House changes.

“All we’ve got to do is concur with it, which shouldn’t be a problem,” Casperson said.

If approved by the Senate, the legislation which lets facilities allow the handling of bear cubs up to 9 months old or weighing no more than 90 pounds would head to Gov. Rick Snyder’s desk for final approval.

In December, Snyder vetoed a similar bill which was tied to another piece of legislation Snyder didn’t approve of. Snyder encouraged lawmakers to reintroduce the bear bill separately.

Casperson said the bill would grandfather in facilities and not facility owners. He said the legislation will be important to Dean Oswald’s facility, which is the largest bear only facility in the country. The bear cubs are a popular attraction at the ranch, which has a relatively short season from Memorial Day to Sept. 30.

“It’s important to get his season up and running this year,” Casperson said.

Oswald’s facility has 29 live roaming black bears in four habitats. Platforms allow visitors to have a barrier free view of the bears, the ranch website said.

State Representatives Scott Dianda, D-Calumet, and John Kivela, D-Marquette, voted in favor of the bill in the House last week.

“Oswald’s Bear Ranch in Newberry is in my district and it has been rescuing bears and educating the public on these animals since 1997,” Kivela said. “I consider the passage of this legislation a win for promoting safety when encountering wildlife and keeping a U.P. attraction open for business.”

The Large Carnivore Act regulates the possession of, and other activities associated with, large carnivores defined to refer to bears and to large cats, such as lions, tigers and leopards. With the passage of the bill, an individual or entity would not be able to allow patrons to come into direct contact with a large carnivore, other than a bear, up to 36 weeks old or weighing up to 90 pounds.

“This bill actually does have real-world implications. I have always supported small businesses and supported wise use of our natural resources,” Dianda said. “The bear ranch affected by this legislation rehabilitates and rescues bears and plays an integral role in educating people on what to do when encountering large carnivores in the wild. This is particularly important in my district and the entire Upper Peninsula.”

John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206.