Hesperia Biologists watch as bears migrate to southern Mich.

HESPERIA, Mich. (AP) -- Growing numbers of black bears are migrating into southern Michigan as the state's population surges, leading biologists to step up efforts to trace their movements and prevent unwanted encounters with people.

The Upper Peninsula is still home to 80 percent or more of the state's bears, and 95 percent of the others live in the northern Lower Peninsula. But sightings are picking up farther south, the Department of Natural Resources and Environment says.

"They tend to be younger males that have been chased off by older males as they look for territory, so they disperse to areas where they don't have competition," Mary Dettloff, spokeswoman for the agency, said Friday. "They're following the fruit belt, all those orchards right down the west side of the state. We often get reports in the spring, when they wake up hungry."

Michigan's bear population has risen for the past two decades and is estimated at 9,000 to 11,000, DNRE bear program specialist Adam Bump told The Grand Rapids Press. The department gets 10 to 30 reports of bears in southern counties each year. They've been spotted from Flint to Ionia and even in Jackson County, south of Lansing.

A state bear management plan approved in 2008 recommends letting the population expand naturally, Bump told the Press. That means the DNRE needs to educate people in southern Michigan, who are less accustomed to coming across bears in the wild than northern Michigan residents are.

"They eat a lot of vegetation but do have the potential to harm people and pets if they are not respected," Dwayne Etter, a DNRE research specialist, told The Associated Press. "But they are not an animal to be feared. If people follow our suggestions on how to respond when encountering a bear, there shouldn't be conflicts."

Published: Tue, Feb 22, 2011