As recent as 20 years ago, any bear sighting in Missouri made state-wide headlines. Today, the state’s bear population has become established, the range of these large mammals in Missouri appears to be growing and many Missourians are learning how to live with bears.
Along with scientific data, there’s plenty of citizen-gathered information about Missouri’s bear population. From 2011 to 2017, the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) received 1,341 bear reports in 87 counties. While these numbers may contain a few misidentifications, biologists feel these reports give further credence to what their research is indicating – that bears seem to be doing well in the state.
At present, bears are most commonly found in forested areas of southern Missouri, but there have been a sprinkling of sightings in urban areas, too. As we head into spring and envision all the outdoor-related events this time of year is known for (think increased fishing activity, turkey season, morel mushrooms); we also need to remember that this is the time of year bears begin to be active.
In many instances, seeing a bear in the wild is no cause for alarm. If you spot one lumbering through a forest or at the edge of a field or pasture, you’ve merely seen a wild animal in the process of doing what all wild animals do – going through the seasonal routines it needs to do in order to survive. The fact this particular wild animal can weigh more than 300 pounds as an adult and is not seen as often as some other species still makes it a unique occasion whenever you see a bear in Missouri (despite the increased prevalence of sightings). But seeing a bear in the wild is usually not an event to get frightened about.
Black bears will not stalk humans over great distances so they can attack us when we’re least expecting it. Like most wild animals, bears would much rather be away from us than around us.
However, bears are opportunistic foragers and they are inquisitive, and that’s what can get them into trouble with people. Like any wildlife species, the black bears in Missouri are constantly searching for their next meal. When they are successful at finding food, they remember where it came from. If that food source happens to be a garbage bin, bird feeder, beehive, campground or other human-occupied area, the bears’ feeding habits can be problematic for humans.
The trouble can be compounded when bears are purposely fed by people who think they’re helping them survive or are trying to lure them in for a good photo or video opportunity. If a bear visits an area and is rewarded with food, you can bet it will return. Black bears are very powerful and can cause substantial damage to buildings, trailers, vehicles and just about anything else that gets in the way of their search for food.
Bears quickly become accustomed to people. Often, bears that are fed by people lose their natural fear of humans and, in some cases, seek people out in search of another handout. So, the message is simple – don’t give bears a reason to come to your home or farm and they probably won’t – or at least they won’t stay and become a problem. Putting out food or doing anything to encourage a bear to come to your property or stay on your property will only result in trouble for humans and, if the bear continues to stay around the premises, wildlife experts will likely have no other option but to destroy the bear.
More information about black bears in Missouri can be found at your local Missouri Department of Conservation office or at www.missouriconservation.org.
Francis Skalicky is the media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Southwest Region. For more information about conservation issues, call 417-895-6880.