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The Bear Truth

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Published on: Apr. 2, 2000

Last revision: Nov. 4, 2010

the can where he wanted it. The indignant bear promptly bit the man on his rear end.

Good for the bear, you might say. But the man reported the bear to officials and demanded its immediate destruction as a dangerous animal.

In Arkansas, bears were raiding bird feeders. They ate all the bird seed a woman had put out and then started prowling her porches and peering in doors and windows trying to get more. Biologists advised her to quit feeding the bears but, convinced that the bears were hungry, she refused.

A local paper took up the cry and castigated the state for having a population of bears roaming hills in which there wasn't enough food to support them, a curious notion, since black bears lived in the Ozarks long before any people did. Luckily for everyone involved, the woman stopped feeding the bears and the animals left of their own accord.

"A black bear's diet ordinarily is made up of 90 percent vegetable matter," said Scott McWilliams, a Conservation Department wildlife biologist who deals with problem bears. Black bears are omnivorous. They will eat almost anything that is edible. Early in the spring they graze on green grasses. They seek out berries and mushrooms and tender young buds and shoots. They scrounge for wild honey. They tip over dead logs and feast on grubs, termites and ants. They depend a great deal on acorns. When readily available, they'll scavenge carrion.

In other words, a black bear is an opportunistic forager. Bears also are quite intelligent. If they find easily-obtained food from humans, it doesn't take long for them to become food-conditioned and habituated to humans, a dangerous combination.

"One of the first incidents I dealt with involved a bear near a trout park," McWilliams said. "At first, the anglers enjoyed having the bear around. They fed him fish and other treats. Soon the bear began to expect food, and suddenly, he wasn't so cute anymore. He was an accident waiting to happen. Once a bear has been fed by humans, it's often too late--for the bear."

Bear biologists all over the country know the phrase, "A fed bear is a dead bear." A bear conditioned to expect food from people is a dangerous animal. Even the smallest black bear possesses strength out of proportion to its size and can be dangerous.

Missourians are lucky to have a burgeoning black bear population. We need to learn the best ways to coexist with these magnificent creatures. To make certain none of our valuable bears have to be destroyed as a 'nuisance,' discourage bears from becoming dependent on non-natural foods.

Like people, black bears are curious. That's how they learn. But as soon as you suspect that a black bear's been eating dog or livestock food or visiting bird feeders, contact the Conservation Department.

Keep food out of reach. Stop feeding dogs or cats outdoors, or watch as they eat until a wildlife biologist can assess the problem and help in this solution. Refrain from putting out wild bird seed until it can be done in a bearproof manner.

Under no circumstances approach a bear or attempt to lure it close to any human dwelling, be it home, camper or tent. Bears, no matter how big and friendly they may appear, are still wild animals. And wild animals are unpredictable.

Some states and provinces have zero tolerance for bears. At the first sign of trouble, they trap the animal and destroy it. "Our approach here in Missouri is different," said McWilliams. "We do whatever we can to stop the damage without harming the bear. That includes erecting electric fences on the spot, firing shellcrackers through shotguns or shooting off starter's pistols. To date, we've only had to destroy one bear, so we feel our program is working well."

Help keep Missouri's bears on track as they begin to repopulate areas of the state that have not supported bears in close to a century.

Most importantly, at the first sign of bear trouble, call the Conservation Department. It's the best thing for you and the best thing for our bears

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