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 our bears are Missouri natives, since we have had reproduction for at least a couple decades.
Things are a little different for mountain lions. The main source of our lions appears to be the Black Hills of South Dakota and perhaps the Pine Ridge-area of Nebraska. Analysis of DNA from tissue and hair samples collected from Missouri mountain lions indicates that the cats were born more than 800 miles away. Whether these animals actually establish home ranges in Missouri is questionable.
Mountain lion researchers suggest that young males disperse at a high rate but don’t settle into a home range until they have found a mate. We did some detective work on a radio-collared male that was photographed in Linn County last winter and found that the cat probably originated in South Dakota. It was photographed in Michigan this past October, probably still looking for romance.
Females generally don’t disperse far from their birth sites (less than 75 miles), so we have only a small chance of a female making it to Missouri. However, as mountain lions colonize former ranges in Nebraska, the likelihood of female dispersal to Missouri increases.
Living With Large Carnivores
Black bears, mountain lions and human populations coexist throughout North America. As human populations grow, the likelihood of interactions with these animals will increase. Most folks consider it a lifetime experience to see a black bear or mountain lion in the wild. With black bears, these situations usually involve human foods, and that can lead to problems. Mountain lions aren’t interested in human foods but are occasionally seen by hikers or hunters.
Bears are adaptable, intelligent animals and may learn to associate humans and their homes or campsites with food. Bears are attracted to these areas by the smell of food. In this regard, bears are much like teenage boys—they are always hungry.
In Missouri, common food attractants include bird feeders, garbage and pet or livestock food. Residential bear problems usually occur because natural food supplies are limited before berries ripen in the spring and during the fall when acorn production is low.
Typical bear problems involve overturned garbage containers, trash littered across the yard, bears entering dog pens or coming onto porches to eat pet foods or damaging bird feeders. Most bear problems have simple solutions— don’t give bears access to whatever they are trying to eat. Put your trash out on the day it is collected; only feed your animals what they can eat that day. Bears that learn to associate food with people can cause property damage in their search for food around houses.
The mountain lion is also known by the names puma, cougar, panther, painter and catamount. It, and the much smaller bobcat, are the only wild felines native to Missouri.
Mountain lions’ tendency to travel long distances occasionally lands these cats in seemingly inappropriate areas, even places densely settled by humans. We’ve documented cats near St. Louis and Kansas City, but these incidents are almost always brief, with the animal moving along quickly in its search of a mate. Mountain lions are rarely sighted, even in areas with resident populations. They tend to hunt and travel at night.
Mountain lion attacks on humans are extremely rare. In North America, roughly 25 fatalities and 95 nonfatal attacks have been reported during the past 100 years. Black bear attacks occur at higher rates, 50 fatalities in the past 100 years. It is important to keep these numbers in perspective. For every one person killed by a black bear, 45 people are killed by domestic dogs, 120 by bee stings and 250 by lightning strikes.
If you encounter a bear or mountain lion, do not escalate the situation by approaching, crowding around or chasing the animal. Pick up small children so they do not run, scream or panic. Restrain dogs. Maintain eye contact, raise your arms to look bigger and back away slowly. For a bear or mountain lion that has climbed up a tree, the best thing you can do is leave it alone. Because these animals are naturally afraid of humans, any animal that feels cornered will be looking for an escape route. By keeping people and pets away, you give these animals the best chance to come down from the tree and leave on their own.
Both black bears and mountain lions are protected by our Wildlife Code. Bears and mountain lions that are attacking humans or their livestock may be killed without prior permission. Animals killed under this rule must be reported immediately to an agent of the Department, and the intact carcass, including pelt, must be surrendered to the agent within 24 hours.
MDC is not reintroducing or stocking mountain lions or bears. We want to learn more about black bears and mountain lions in Missouri and encourages all citizens to report sightings, physical evidence or other incidents so they can be thoroughly investigated. To make a report, contact your nearest MDC regional office or visit our website at mdc.mo.gov/node/4167.
What To Do
|ANIMAL ACTIVITY||MEANING||HUMAN RISK||APPROPRIATE RESPONSE|
|Bear or mountain lion far away and moving away or in a tree||Secretive and avoidance||no threat||Keep children where they can be observed, slowly back away|
|Bear or mountain lion more than 100 yards away, various positions and movements, attention directed away from people||Indifference||no threat||Remain calm, don’t cevend animal, ensure animal has an escape route. Avoid rapid movements, running, loud, excited talk. Alert animal of your presence, slowly back away.|
|Bear stands on hind legs||Attempting to see or smell||no threat||Alert bear of your presence, slowly back away|
|Bear or mountain lion 50 yards away, various body positions, intent attention toward people, following behavior||Curiosity||Slight for adults given proper response||Hold small children; keep older children close to an adult. Do not turn your back on animal. Assume standing position. Look for sticks, rocks or other weapons and pick them up, using an aggressive posture while doing so. Make this a negative experience for the animal.|
|Bear vocalizing in form of huffs, snorts, jaw popping||Bear feels threatened or stressed||Slight threat with appropriate human response||Do not crowd or feed animal, slowly back away.|
|Mountain lion closer than 50 yards, intense staring at humans, hiding, creeping or crouching||Assessing success of attack||Human threat||All of the above steps, plus place older children behind adults. If a safer location or one above the mountain lion is available, go there. Do not run. Raise hands and other objects such as jackets above head so as to present image of bulk as high as possible. Prepare to defend yourself.|
|Bear approaches or follows person despite efforts to harass it away||Bear probably looking for food, may have been fed by humans in past||Human threat||Raise arms, open coat to appear large, make loud noises, throw rocks and objects at bear, slowly back away|
|Mountain lion or black bear actually attacks and makes physical contact||Defensive or predatory reaction||Human threat||Prepare to defend yourself in close combat. Pepper spray may be effective if animal is close enough and downwind. Fight back; if you have weapons, use them. Make menacing noises. If you have any chance of averting it, it is by acting aggressively toward the animal.|