By Ethan Colbert
Centuries ago, a substantial population of black bears called the Show-Me State home, inhabiting the state’s forested hills. Over the years, the population declined after early Missouri settlers trapped and killed the bears for their fur and meat.
By the early 1900s, the bears had become fairly rare in the Ozarks and practically extinct
in other regions of the state.
Since 1950, the Show- Me state’s black bear population has been rebounding due in large
part to a conservation program in Arkansas. Today, one of the Missouri’s leading fur-bearer biologists, Laura Conlee, says that the state’s bear population is self-sustaining and growing.
One of the more noticeable effects of this burgeoning black bear population is that young male bears are beginning to appear in parts of the state, including Pike County, which has historically not been known for a black bear population.
“Our bear population in Missouri is growing,” Conlee said in a telephone interview with the Bowling Green Times. According to one news report, the state’s bear population had eclipsed 300 in 2012. Research is currently being conducted to gauge the total number of bears in the state.
“The primary location for black bears is south of Interstate 44, which is where there are the biggest blocks of forested habitat in the state,” Conlee said. “However that doesn’t mean that a bear won’t travel huge distances. For northeast Missouri, it not a common occurrence to see black bears, but it has happened.”
According to the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Bear Report, which is available online, a bear was confirmed to have been near Middletown and Vandalia in 2017. In 2015, a bear was sighted south of Paynesville. Another bear was sighted near New Hartford in 2012. In 2009, a black bear was sighted south of Salt River near Frankford.
Bears have also been seen in nearby Audrain County, Montgomery County and Lincoln County.
In her interview, Conlee says that the reasons young black bears are being seen in Missouri is due largely in part to the actions of the bear’s mother.
“Once they are about 18-to-19 months of age they are sort of kicked out by their mother,” Conlee said. “So then these male bears begin to make these long-range movements throughout the state.“
According to Conlee, the bears are searching for a combination of things, including an adequate food supply and a significant population of female bears.
“The bears that are wondering the state are not yet old enough to be breeding, so they may show up in an area where you normally wouldn’t see bears and spend a few days and then move on,” Conlee said. How long the bear stays in one particular area generally depends on the availability of food, which often times is inadvertently provided by humans.
Conlee gave the example of seeds in a bird feeder as being one source of food for the bear.
These long treks, which are what has brought the bears to Pike County, can sometimes take a male black bear 60 to 100 miles from its home. A female bear makes a much smaller migration,
Conlee says, often times choosing a territory that overlaps her mother’s territory.
While Conlee says it is unlikely that a black bear has taken up residence in Pike County’s
forests, she does acknowledge that one day that might change. “It really remains
to be seen,” Conlee said. “What we are seeing from the bear’s behavior is that they
are living in heavily forested areas in the southern and central parts of the state. We
are also seeing that male bears are very slow to take up residency in new territory because it takes quite some time for females to reach them.” In the meantime, both Conlee and local Missouri Department of Conservation Agent Mike Christensen are encouraging local residents to not engage a bear, if they should see it. “Just like with any other dangerous animals,
bears will go away if you leave it alone,” Christensen said in an interview.
“Bears are not known for necessarily being interested in attacking humans. They are more
interested in fruits, berries, nuts, and those types of things.”
Bears are not currently considered an endangered species in Missouri, but the
state’s wildlife experts say the population is not yet strong enough to sustain a
hunting or trapping season.
According to MDC, before the department will consider creating hunting or trapping sea-
son, the bear population must exceed 500 bears.
Until then, bears will be off-limits to hunt. However, Christensen said landowners are
still allowed to shoot a bear if the animal is causing damage to their proper
or attacking livestock.
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