You’ve probably heard it said before… “A fed bear is a dead bear.” This is a popular axiom among bear biologists and bear enthusiasts. Feeding bears alters their natural instincts and can create dangerous behavior that often leads to their demise. And just like Yogi in the cartoons we grew up with, bears have a hard time distinguishing handouts from foods that are simply “available.”
Bears like the same food that we do. They also like what we feed our pets, livestock, songbirds and squirrels. They are attracted to sweets of any kind, especially fruits and honey, and also enjoy household garbage and grain. Once a bear receives such a “treat” it may return several times even after the food is removed. Some bears become bold when looking for these unnatural food items and may actually cause damage by breaking into containers or buildings.
A couple of summers ago, we were called in to help solve a nuisance bear problem that had suddenly escalated to an unacceptable degree. A southwestern Missouri couple was awakened during the night by strange sounds coming from the kitchen. Something was rustling and banging around, and the wife went to check it out. While making her way to the kitchen in the dark, she tripped over something warm, fuzzy and quite large. The light switch revealed her worst nightmare—a bear lying on the floor!
The bear had simply pushed through the screen door of the house looking for food and helped itself. Because the homeowners had been feeding the bear for some time, they encouraged this highly uncharacteristic behavior. The bear had gotten so accustomed to people, it had just let itself in. It let itself out, too, hurriedly, and through an even larger hole in the screen door.
We learned that the couple had tried to rid themselves of the problem by baiting the bear with dog food that they had placed in the back of a pickup truck. While the bear was busy feeding, the husband tried to drive off with it. Of course, as soon as the truck started moving, the bear jumped out.
The fate of the home-invading bear was sealed. Because of his altered behavior, this bear had to be eliminated.
Unfortunately, this bear had become what biologists refer to as “habituated.” It had lost its natural fear and wariness around people and had begun to associate people with food, becoming seemingly tame. However, bears are large wild animals, and they’re strong, unpredictable and never tame.
Black Bears in Missouri
Some Missourians are unaware that we have bears in the state, but we do. Bears were once common throughout most of Missouri. However, settlement of the state brought widespread habitat changes as well as unregulated bear hunting, and it almost wiped them out. By the 1840s, black bears had become rare in north Missouri, and by the 1890s, they were thought to be almost eliminated from the Ozarks. A few bear sightings were recorded into the 1950s, and it was generally believed that some bears might have remained in portions of the Ozarks.
Between 1959 and 1967, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission released 254 black bears in the Ozark and Ouachita mountains of western Arkansas. Their population now numbers around 3,000 to 3,500 bears, and Arkansas has held annual hunting seasons since 1980. Some of the offspring from the bear population in Arkansas probably wander into Missouri, especially the young males.
Missouri’s black bear population is slowly increasing in our Ozarks, and somewhere between 300 and 500 bears are scattered over a wide area of southern Missouri. While we have documented several reproducing females, the population seems to be heavily dominated by young males. If you were to draw a line along Highway I-44 from St. Louis to near Joplin, 90 percent of the bears exist south of that line.
There are roughly 3 million acres of good black bear habitat in Missouri. Although our oak woodlands provide excellent fall foods, primarily acorns, not much would be considered “excellent” habitat due to numerous roads and fairly gentle terrain. Forest clearings and wise logging operations do help improve bear habitat by providing forage and berries in the spring and summer. Insects are also important summer bear foods.
It’s a Bear’s Life
Named after their predominate color phase, black bears may also be brown, tan or cinnamon colored. Sometimes, because of their color variations, black bears are also referred to as cinnamon bears and honey bears. All of the bears in Missouri, regardless of color, are black bears (Ursus americanus).
Black bears breed in summer when food is abundant, but don’t give birth until in their dens. Bears typically go to their dens in November and emerge by April. Bear dens can consist of a hole in a rock bluff, a hollow tree, an excavation under an overturned tree, or a brush pile. Bears might also simply hide in the protection of thick, concealing brush. Bears don’t have a true hibernation, but avoid the winter food shortage by becoming lethargic. In the den, they reduce their metabolic rate, surviving without eating, drinking, exercising, or passing waste.
Females may have a litter as early as 3 years of age. After successful breeding, fertilized blastocysts implant in the uterus and undergo a quick 45-day gestation period. Young are tiny, weighing only about 9 ounces, but they grow quickly on rich fatty milk. The female can care for the young even while in a semi-dormant state.
Bear cubs grow rapidly, reaching 60-80 pounds or more by the end of their first summer and fall. They return to den with their mother one more winter before heading out on their own during their second year. After leaving home, young females typically stay close by, but males might wander many miles trying to find areas that do not already have large adult males, but do have food and females. Sometimes these bears can go several hundred miles in their search for new territory.
Getting Along With Bears
Sometimes we fear most those things we understand least. While there are still plenty of things we don’t know about bears in Missouri, we do know we have them, and it looks like more are on the way. With an increasing bear population, the opportunity to see a bear also increases. As a result, many Missourians are encountering bears for the first time and may be unsure how to react.
By nature, black bears are docile and reclusive, and they tend to avoid people. Hunters have reported watching them from their tree stands and, while the bear is aware of the hunter’s presence, it merely wanders off without incident. More often, bears retreat quickly when they become aware of human presence, leaving a person to only imagine what might have been crashing through the brush.
We have not experienced a bear attack on a person in Missouri in modern times. However, three bears were killed in Missouri by people last year, and two of those were possibly habituated bears that came too close to people. Black bears are protected by Missouri’s Wildlife Code and may not be killed without prior permission by an agent of the Department. We are trying to stop the mindset of “shoot first and ask questions later” when it comes to black bears by educating people about bears and resolving their fear of the unknown.
The Department has wildlife damage biologists that are trained and experienced in handling nuisance bear issues. They can usually resolve problems associated with bears without having to kill them or trap and relocate them. We can be most helpful if we are contacted at the first sign of nuisance bear behavior. Don’t wait until the bear has made itself comfortable in your backyard before asking for assistance.
Bears are smart and learn fast. They avoid circumstances that are uncomfortable for them, which is why harassment works well. If a bear is found in your yard, create a racket by making loud noises and shouting, without approaching the bear. A barking dog is also a good and natural deterrent.
Bears are sensitive to electricity, and stringing electric fence around whatever you don’t want them getting into is almost 100 percent effective.
Most bear problems can be corrected by removing or keeping food items out of reach and by harassing the bear. If harassment and exclusion tactics don’t work, the bear may have to be trapped by a wildlife damage biologist as a last resort.
A Future With Bears
Most folks welcome the chance to see a bear in the wilds of Missouri and, for the most part, those encounters will be positive ones. Learning to live with bears will be important for the bears as well as for Missouri’s citizens. By judging from Missouri’s proud conservation past when it comes to our native wildlife, I’d say we’re up for the challenge.
Bear Wise — What To Do If You Encounter a Bear
Bears are normally shy of humans and quickly get out of our way when they see us. If you spot a bear on a trail, if a bear is trying to get at food in your yard or campsite, or if a bear tries to approach you, here is how you should react:
- Do not approach the bear to get a better look. Slowly back away while watching the bear and wait for it to leave.
- If you are near a building or car, get inside as a precaution. If the bear was attracted to food or garbage, make sure it is removed after the bear leaves to discourage the bear from returning.
- If you are with others, stay together and act as a group. Make sure that the bear has a clear escape route, then yell and wave your arms to make yourself look bigger. Bang pots and pans—make noise somehow.
- Do not climb a tree—black bears are excellent tree climbers.
- A bear may stand upright to get a better view, make huffing or “popping” sounds, swat or beat the ground with its forepaws or even bluff charge—this means that you are too close. Back off and give the bear more space. If the bear comes within range, use pepper spray if you have it.
- If a bear is in a tree, leave it alone. Remove people and dogs from the area. The bear will usually come down and leave when it feels safe.
- It is important to keep dogs away from a bear. While a well-trained dog may deter a bear, a poorly trained one may only excite it.
- Call the Missouri Department of Conservation—we are prepared to help!
In Memory of Dave Hamilton (1955-2007)
Dave Hamilton, respected resource scientist for the Missouri Department of Conservation, and a great friend and advisor, died on September 8, 2007, at age 52.
Dave was a consummate wildlife professional, a deeply committed biologist and an outstanding researcher. His unwavering devotion to resource management and his national and international status as an expert in the field of furbearer management and humane trapping methods are a credit to him, the MDC, and the conservation of wildlife resources in Missouri.
Dave was dedicated to natural resource management and to the prospect of leaving a better world for those who followed in his footsteps. By virtue of his commitment to scientific excellence and to the wise use of abundant natural resources, trappers, hunters, and wildlife managers throughout the United States have a more secure future.
Throughout his career and personal life, Dave influenced many people with his optimism, innovative approaches, boundless energy, courteous demeanor, attention to detail, professionalism and personal concern for the well-being of Missouri and its resources. He mentored many young professionals and set an example that influenced a generation.
Beyond his professional accomplishments, Dave was valued as a friend and colleague. There is no person that spent any time with Dave who was not impacted by his talent, charisma and dedication. He will be sorely missed by the entire conservation community, and our thoughts and prayers are with Dave’s family and friends.