Black bears and mountain lions are making their way back to Missouri. While some of these animals are only passing through, others are likely here to stay. Learning about our new neighbors is both interesting and important for safe interactions.
Black bears have re-colonized portions of their former range in Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kentucky. Recent estimates suggest there are more than 4,000 bears in the four-state region. We are in the process of determining the portion of these bears that reside in Missouri. So far, we know that Missouri bears are healthy, the population is growing slowly, and their range is largely limited to areas south of Interstate 44.
This natural re-colonization was not expected. Daniel McKinley, in 1962, authored the article The History of the Black Bear in Missouri, and in the introduction he states that “although their time has long since passed, bears have a well-documented history in early Missouri.” I wonder what he would think today.
Since 1994, we’ve been able to confirm 28 incidents of mountain lions in the state; since last November, we’ve confirmed 18. I attribute the uptick in mountain lion sightings partially to new technology and partially to the fact that more cats are dispersing into states east of their current range. Certainly, the popularity of trail cameras has helped us to confirm the presence of many of these cats. DNA has also enabled us to confirm and identify the origin and sex of cats from only a few strands of hair.
Why Do Large Carnivores Disperse?
Dispersal is the one-way movement of an animal from its birth site to an independent living area. The drive to disperse is strong in males of most large carnivore species. No one knows for sure why males disperse, but we do know that dispersal reduces competition, re-colonizes vacant habitats and keeps populations from becoming inbred. Without these dispersal tendencies we probably wouldn’t have black bears or mountain lions in the state
From Where Are They Coming?
In the 1940s, Arkansas released 254 bears that were translocated from Minnesota and Manitoba, Canada. It’s likely that some of these bears immediately dispersed into Missouri and formed the source population for the bears we have today. In addition, there is some DNA evidence that suggests we may have had a small remnant bear population that was supplemented by the Arkansas release. Today it is likely that most of