Jeff Beringer surely knows the old saying, “Sometimes you bite the bear, and sometimes the bear bites you.” But Missouri’s top bear biologist has his own unique spin on this notion.
I was with Jeff on Tuesday morning when he darted a 218-pound female black bear and then released the sleeping sow from the foot snare that had temporarily interrupted her wanderings in Webster County. He and his crew doused the sleeping bruin with water to keep her comfortably cool and then quickly set to work gathering data to help understand the biology, ecology and population dynamics of Missouri’s growing black-bear population.
This particular bear was captured last September and fitted with an electronic collar that beams GPS data up to a satellite and back down to a Conservation Department computer to document her movements. Jeff’s first order of business was to remove that collar and replace it with one with fresh batteries. But before strapping on the new device, Jeff dug his fingers into the matted fur where the leather collar had been and began a vigorous massage. Someone asked him what he was doing.
“I’m scratchin’ her,” he replied. “If I were her, I’d want be scratched after wearing that thing for nine months!”
No one who knows Jeff would be surprised by that. Delighted, yes, but not surprised. Like every biologist who devotes his or her career to conserving wildlife, Jeff has a deep affection for the animals he handles. Some people have difficulty reconciling that obvious, undeniable bond with the fact that conservation biologists also are okay with hunting those same animals. The key to understanding this seeming contradiction is realizing that biologists and hunters see themselves as part of nature, not apart from it.
At some point in the future, bears will grow numerous enough in some parts of Missouri to come into frequent contact with people. When that happens, conflicts between bears and people will increase, and at some point, the drawbacks of having bears around will outweigh the benefits. When bears cross the line between being a fascinating and welcome part of nature to being a problem, the Conservation Department needs to be ready to maintain bear numbers at an acceptable level.
The last thing Beringer and other conservation professionals want is for wild animals to grow so populous that the average person sees them more as a curse than a blessing, getting “bitten” by the bear, so to speak. The most cost-effective way of keeping the number of bears and other wildlife in check is carefully regulated hunting or trapping seasons. We are still several years away from Missouri’s first bear-hunting season. By then, Beringer and his research team will have scratched a lot of bears’ necks, and they will have a grasp of Missouri bears’ population dynamics that enables them to design regulations that minimize bear problems and create hunting opportunities that Missourians have not enjoyed for generations.
At that point, we will have come full circle, from prehistoric times, when people hunted bears for their flesh and their warm fur, through careless exploitation and extirpation, then painstaking restoration and finally back to a balanced, sustainable relationship with bears. People once again will be a functioning part of the black bear’s life cycle. A bear-hunting season will weave people back into yet another layer of the Show-Me State’s ecological fabric. And, thanks to a dedicated corps of bear-scratching biologists and the citizens who support their work, Missouri will be one step closer to wholeness.