I didn’t have to think twice when Resource Scientist Jeff Beringer emailed me last week, asking if I’d like to accompany him on a trip to Howell County. He was winding up two days of checking on denned black bears, something I had never done before.
Jeff is in the first year of a seven-year study aimed at answering some important questions, including how many bears Missouri has, where they live, how much and what kind of habitat they need, how rapidly or slowly they are multiplying, and how genetically diverse they are. The information will guide the Conservation Department’s decisions about how to ensure that bears continue to thrive in Missouri while minimizing conflicts with people.
At this time of year, Jeff’s field work consists mainly of checking on radio-collared sows to see whether and how many cubs they have with them. This also gives him a chance to check to be sure their tracking collars are neither too loose nor too tight. Adjusting a collar requires sedating the bear to refit the collar. It also creates the opportunity to count, measure, and weigh cubs (now going on three months old) and collect DNA and hair samples from the little ones so they can be identified in the future and added to the genealogy that is emerging from the collection of DNA by various means.
Much more important from my point of view, would be the chance to handle a live adult bear and her cubs. That is a thrill not many people experience. As we hiked the half mile across USDA Forest Service land to the den site, I have my fingers crossed that the sow’s collar is too loose. The other three Conservation Department workers in our party clearly share this hope.
When Jeff goes on this sort of bear hunt, he needs a few extra hands to haul gear – GPS unit, directional antenna to locate the bear’s collar, dart gun and supplies to sedate the bear if necessary, and gear for gathering biological samples. One person serves as official recorder for the event. My job as writer/photographer earns me a pass on packing duties. Our crew for the day includes Outdoor Skills Specialist Brian Flowers, and Wildlife Management Assistants Clinton Prenger and Justan Blair.
As we set out, Jeff cautions his entourage to be as quiet as possible when we get close to the den site. After all, this is the second day of