Bears on the move

Seth Kinker
Neosho Daily News

With summer in full swing, Missouri’s growing black bear population is actively searching for food, territory and mates.

A native species to the state, they play an important role in the forest ecosystem spreading seeds and aiding in forest decomposition by breaking down logs and dead trees in search of food.

In May, the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) offered permits to eligible state residents for the state’s first bear hunting season taking place this fall.

With most of the state’s black bears found south of the Missouri River and primarily south of Interstate 44, MDC has established three Bear Management Zones (BMZ) in southern Missouri. Permit and harvest quotas are established for each BMZ.

Initial population research by the MDC began in 2010 and in 2012, a statewide population estimate came in at just under 300 bears.

An updated population estimate in 2019 determined that there are between 540-840 black bears in Missouri and that number is growing at around 9% annually with the primary bear range in forested areas south of I-44.

“We’ve done several studies and have continued to monitor bear sows and the rate at which they’re having cubs and that type of stuff to determine growth rate and when would be a proper time to start administering a hunt,” said Ashley Schnake, Wildlife Community Conservation Specialist with the Southwest Regional Office of the MDC.

“As far as Newton County, once you get more in the Neosho area it’s understandable bears could be down there,” added Schnake. “It’s just really good habitat down there with the national forest and all that kind of stuff.”

Missouri has a growing population of about 800 black bears, according to Missouri Department of Conservation.

The updated Black Bear Management Plan for the MDC released in Apr. 2020 goes until 2030 and has three goals.

The first goal is to use science-based methods to manage a self-sustaining population of black bear, focusing on research and monitoring, population management, and habitat management, the second is to increase statewide awareness of Missouri’s black bear population and management program through coordinated outreach and public education and the third is to minimize and address human-bear conflicts.

In the introduction of the updated plan, it gave the history on occurrences in the state:

“From 1950 – 1972 there were 54 reported occurrences of bears in 27 counties in Missouri. In 1990, a request for sighting information published in the June Conservationist magazine resulted in 55 reports of sightings in 26 counties. Over the last 2 decades, reports have increased substantially. From 2000 – 2010, MDC received 512 bear reports in 75 counties. From 2011 – 2017 MDC received 1,341 bear reports in 87 counties. Reports are not verified, and likely include some percent that are misidentified, but in general, the distribution and number of bear reports is steadily increasing.”

MDC Damage Biologist Josh Wisdom said there’s been a general uptick in sightings not only in Newton County, but across the state, in the past five years.

He highlighted taking care of food as one of the big things to be aware of to make a meeting with a bear less likely.

“Once they get over the breeding cycle in the summer then they’re really focused on putting weight on going into the fall pre-hibernation period,” said Wisdom. “It’s all about calories for bears whether its garbage or bird or pet food. Anything they can eat they’re going to be interested in. a bear’s nose is more acute than a dog, it doesn’t really take much for them to find something of interest. Especially in the home, it’s really just about trying to keep things put up, keeping things where bears can’t get into them.”

“As soon as something does happen, I realize for example in Newton County, a lot of these homes aren’t what you consider core bear range,” added Wisdom. “but you still might have something happen where a bear gets in the trash et cetera, is to just go ahead and take actions immediately to resolve it. Whether it’s putting the trash in the shed or whatever, keeping them out of the food source so they can’t come back again. Once they get into something, they’re going to be pretty interested in coming back.”

Tips from the MDC on managing Human-Bear conflict

Human-bear conflict is increasing with the growing bear population. Attraction to food is the most frequent source of human-bear conflict. Removing or securing food attractants is key to preventing the majority of human-bear conflicts, including:

  • Bring in birdfeeders.
  • Keep trash secure. Store in a secure outbuilding, secure container, or behind electric fencing. Put trash out the morning of pick-up.
  • Do not leave pet food or livestock feed out unattended. Store pet food or livestock feed in secure outbuildings, secure containers, or behind electric fencing.
  • Protect beehives with electric fencing. Be sure fencing is maintained.
  • Online resources are available to provide guidance on proper fencing.
  • Bears are long-lived and have an exceptional memory. They will often revisit locations where they received food in previous years. Simply removing the food source for a day or two is not sufficient as bears will often return.

The MDC has tools available to aversively condition persistent bears.

Aversive conditioning provides a negative stimulus to the bear in hopes that it associates the negative experience with the behavior it was doing (generally seeking food). Rubber bullets, paint balls, bean bag rounds, cracker shells, and tasers are tools that can be used by trained MDC staff.

  • Aversive conditioning discourages a bear from returning but may be temporary. Removing the attractant is required to ensure bears do not have continued access to food.
  • If you experience damage or nuisance activity from a bear, contact your MDC Regional Office or your local Conservation Agent.

Be Bear Aware

Don’t feed bears — intentionally or accidentally. A fed bear is a dead bear – when bears lose their fear of people (often by receiving food), they may become bold in search of food. This can result in bears approaching people or breaking into homes/garages/etc. to find food. Bears that exhibit bold behavior are often euthanized.

  • Most human-bear conflicts are related to food:  Bird feeders, garbage, pet food, grills/smokers, etc. can attract bears to homes — remove or secure these food attractants.
  • When camping or hiking in bear country, be bear aware. Store food in secure containers, keep a clean camp and keep cooking and sleeping areas separate.
  • If you see a bear, enjoy the encounter from a distance, give the bear an escape route and never run.
  • Bears retreat up trees when they feel threatened. If you see a bear up a tree, leave the area and let the bear come down when it is ready. Do not try to photograph the bear or get closer.
  • Bears may explore tree stands out of curiosity or attraction to cover scents or food. If you are hunting and a bear approaches the base of your tree stand, immediately alert the bear of your presence – make noise, stand up, make your face visible.
  • Bear attacks on humans are extremely rare but can occur. Being Bear Aware helps keep you safe.

Report bear sightings to MDC at www.mdc.mo.gov/reportbears.