FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. — Missouri’s growing population of about 800 black bears are on the move in search of food, territory and mates, increasing the chance of encounters with humans.
Because these encounters invariably end badly for the bears, Missouri Department of Conservation officials run an annual public-awareness campaign, urging residents to be “Bear Aware” by removing items from their property that might attract bears.
“Late spring and early summer are prime times for bears to be on the move,” said Laura Conlee, a resource scientist with the conservation department who specializes in the study of black bears and other fur-bearing animals.
“Bears are hungry and searching for food,” Conlee said. “Yearling bears are starting to wander from where they were born seeking food and areas to settle. Adult males begin moving large distances in search of females.”
Most Missouri black bears are found in the forested parts of southern Missouri, primarily south of Interstate 44. However, recent MDC research has shown their numbers are growing, and their range is expanding northward. With a growing population of bears comes an increased potential for human-bear interactions and conflicts.
Removing items that can attract bears is essential to the bears’ safety, Conlee said, because the result of encounters with humans invariably ends badly for the bears. That’s why the tagline of the “Bear Aware” campaign is “a fed bear is a dead bear,” she explained.
“It is imperative that people remove bear attractants from their property, such as bird feeders, trash, barbeque grills, pet food and food waste,” she said. “Keeping areas free of attractants and letting bears find natural foods is in everyone’s best interest. If you see a bear, let the animal be and enjoy the sighting, but be sure to not offer it any food.”
Intentionally feeding bears can be dangerous, she added, because it makes the bears comfortable around people. It can also lead bears to cause significant damage to property while searching for a meal.
“When bears lose their fear of humans, they could approach people in search of food or may defend the food sources or territory they associate with people, which can make them dangerous,” Conlee said. “When this happens, the bear cannot be relocated and has to be destroyed.”
While black bears are generally a shy, non-aggressive species and bear attacks are rare throughout their range, MDC officials offered the following tips to avoid attracting black bears to possible human-created food sources:
— Store garbage, recyclables and compost inside a secure building or in a bear-proof container or location.
— Regularly clean and disinfect trash containers to minimize smells that could attract bears.
— Keep grills and smokers clean, and store them inside.
— Don’t leave pet food outside. Feed pets a portion at each meal and remove the empty containers.
— Refrain from using bird feeders in bear country from April through November. If in use, hang them at least 10 feet high and 4 feet away from any structure. Keep in mind, even if a bear cannot get to the birdseed, the scent could still attract it to the area.
— Use electric fencing to keep bears away from beehives, chicken coops, vegetable gardens, orchards and other potential food sources.
Conservation officials also offered the following tips for those camping or traveling outdoors in Missouri or in bear country in other parts of the country:
— Never offer a bear food.
— Keep campsites clean, and store all food, toiletries and trash in a secure vehicle or strung high between two trees.
— Do not keep food or toiletries in a tent, and do not burn or bury garbage or food waste.
— Make noise, such as clapping, singing or talking loudly, while hiking to prevent surprising a bear.
— Travel in a group if possible.
— Keep dogs leashed.
— Be aware of surroundings. If there are signs of a bear, such as tracks or scat, avoid the area.
— Leave bears alone. Do not approach them, and make sure they have an escape route.
Bears in Missouri history
Black bears are the only bears native to Missouri, but the name can be misleading, as they sometimes have brown, cinnamon or red coats and can be mistaken for other types of bears.
Black bears were historically abundant throughout the forested areas of Missouri prior to European settlement but were nearly eliminated by unregulated killing in the late 1800s, as well as from habitat loss when Ozark forests were logged.
Over the last 50 years, bear numbers and range in Missouri have grown to around 800 black bears with most found south of the Missouri River. However, Missouri bear range is expanding. Bear numbers in Missouri are increasing each year by approximately 9 percent and are expected to double in less than 10 years.
As bear numbers continue to increase, MDC has instituted a highly regulated hunting season as an essential part of population management.
The state’s first bear-hunting season is scheduled to start this fall, and the state began taking applications in May. More information can be found at mdc.mo.gov/bearhunting.
Online visitors can also download the department’s new online Black Bear Hunting Digest at huntfish.mdc.mo.gov/hunting-trapping/regulations/black-bear-hunting-digest.
For more information on Missouri black bears and how to be “Bear Aware,” visit mdc.mo.gov/bearaware.
People can report bear sightings and submit photos to the conservation department at mdc.mo.gov/reportbears.
MDC is also affiliated with the BearWise program, a multi-state education effort to provide information and solutions to prevent problems with black bears and keep bears wild.
BearWise lists ways to prevent conflicts, provide resources to resolve problems and encourage community initiatives at BearWise.org.
(Editor’s note: Information for this article was provided by the Missouri Department of Conservation.)