[Bear grunting and rummaging.]
Jill Pritchard: You're listening to the sound of a black bear. Black bears are one of the largest wild mammals in Missouri.
Hey there, and welcome back to another episode of Nature Boost. I'm Jill Pritchard with the Missouri Department of Conservation. Yogi, Smoky, Pooh, Balloo, Fozzie, all famous depictions of bears many of us grew up with. They love digging in your picnic basket. Some hibernate in caves, and one has also warned us about the dangers of forest fires. But what are the bears these cartoons are based on actually like?
Well, in Missouri you can find black bears. These generally non-aggressive mammals mainly reside in the southern part of the state, but their population is growing and expanding north. Growing up in mid-Missouri, I've never encountered a black bear. But that changed this year when I was invited along on a bear denning research trip with MDC's Fur Bear Biologist, Laura Conlee.
Laura Conlee: Her den is basically along a downed log, a really large log. And she has dug out underneath it, so there's a big space underneath it.
Jill Pritchard: In the late winter, Laura and her team trap a sow, or a female, and her cubs in their den. They safely sedate the mother and take her measurements, her weight, hair samples, and other critical information that helps them learn more about the species. They also take down similar data on her cubs. Take a listen to our conversation following the experience.
Jill Pritchard: Wow! I just want to start off with wow. I'm here with, uh, Fur Bear Biologist Laura Conley. We just got done with this amazing bear denning in southern Missouri, and wow! I'm speechless! I really want to ask, does this ever get old to you? Like does the awe wear off?
Laura Conlee: No, it doesn't get old. That's for sure. Um, with bears, there's always something new to learn. There's always something different that you'll see. You know, this den that we did today was a litter of three cubs. We don't always see litters of three cubs. And so, it never gets old. There's always new things, where they den, how they den, how they behave when we visit the den. There's a lot of times where we'll visit a bear year after year, and each year the bear behaves just a little bit differently in terms of, you know, how they are when we approach the den, or how they created the den, or picked the den, and things like that. Uh, so there's never any part of it that gets old. And with bears, there's just always something new to learn.
Jill Pritchard: What drew you to pursue a career in this area?
Laura Conlee: So, I was always interested in, you know, a natural resources career. And as I went through college, I really liked wildlife management. The idea of doing research to inform management decisions was really interesting to me. I never envisioned myself working with bears, although I thought like, hey, that would be the best career ever if I could do that. But I grew up in northern Illinois. No bears there. So, it wasn't something where I said, oh hey, this is a natural transition. Um, I got my master’s degree studying long-tailed weasels. So, a teeny tiny carnivore in comparison. I took a job as a Fur Bear Biologist in Massachusetts and worked there for eight years. And within the first year there, I inherited the bear program. And it was one of those, I won the lotto in terms of positions and things like that. So, it was a really cool job. And then I was lucky enough to basically get the same position here in Missouri doing really similar research, just on a different population and different habitat, you know, with a different population density and everything. So, a really cool transition for me. But throughout my career, I just feel like it's been one of those like lotto moments.
Jill Pritchard: As far as the bear population in Missouri goes, give us like a brief background of the history. You know, they were once here, but then they were extirpated, and now they're back. Give us the details.
Laura Conlee: Yeah, so um, bears were once common and abundant throughout the forested parts of Missouri. So pre-colonial settlement, we had a lot of forested areas within the state. And so, uh, bears were utilized by early settlers, by Native Americans, through large scale habitat changes and unregulated harvest. Their numbers were driven really, really low. And by the 1950s, we actually thought that bears were extirpated from the state. So, you're talking a population that was locally driven to extinction. We now know that likely wasn't the case. We have genetic information from our population that suggests that we did have a very tiny remnant population hang on in the most deep, dense parts of the Ozarks. But in the 1950s, the 1960s, Arkansas Game and Fish conducted a series of re-introductions within the Ozark and Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas. And inevitably, some of those bears from Arkansas moved their way into Missouri. And as Arkansas' population grew, we started to get more frequent dispersers. And with that, basically from like the 1980s on, we started to see that increase in reports. And we started to hear about sows with cubs. And at first, the idea was these are just bears from Arkansas that are kind of migrating through, and are moving through, they're dispersing, and then they go back to Arkansas. Or maybe their range borders Missouri. But over time, it became apparent that no. We did have an established bear population here. And a lot of it was, you know, through sitting reports from the general public. Photos and things like that, and with the popularity of trail camera photos, we don't get any shortage of trail camera photos of bears.
And so, we instituted a research project back in 2010 that really aimed at getting an idea of how many bears do we have in the state. And so, with that estimate, it was around 300 bears, you know, very early, 2010 to 2012, basically. But with the reports we were getting and with what we were seeing with the bear population, it seemed like that population was growing. So, the next question was, well how fast is it growing? So that brings us to the den work.
[Noise of people working at the den site.]
And so right now, we are kind of in the final stages of this research project visiting these dens. We've been gathering information on cub production, litter sex ratios, adult female survival, cub survival, all of these key factors that play into bear population growth. And so, we've been doing that since 2014 and collecting all of this information, which is how we're able to estimate that our population is now between 540 and 840 bears. And it's growing at about 9 percent annually. So, we've got this growing and expanding population here.
So ideally, we get her back on her side. Then lay this net back down a little bit. She needs to get more to the middle. Hold on to that. And pick her up by the - perfect. All right, Price as Right rules, start throwing out weights.
Female: One dollar.
[Several talking at once with laughter.]
Female: 88.6 kilograms.
Female: Yeah, it's in kilograms. It's fine.
Male: That's equal to 179.6.
Jill Pritchard: As that population continues to grow, um, so does the chance of encounters with people. Just the fact that encounters can happen, they need to be informed on how to react.
Laura Conlee: Absolutely. Absolutely. So, with this growing and expanding population, you know, we have bear range. And we have areas where bears have lived here for quite some time now. So, residents are used to it. Seeing a bear is not an unusual thing. But when you get further north and further east in some situations, you know, south of St. Louis, the Ballwin area, around Lake of the Ozarks, it's a little bit newer. And so even within the established bear range, and then all of those expansion areas where we get dispersing bears kind of showing up and wandering through, all of these areas everybody just needs to understand that this is now bear country, right? So, we have this growing and expanding population. And you think about bear country when you visit national parks, and you visit, you know, more remote areas and all the ways you behave in bear country. And so, the fact is, Missouri has bear country. And a good portion of the southern part of the state is established bear range.
And we have areas where it's not unusual for bears to show up. So, making sure that folks know, you don't want to provide food sources to these bears. So, things like bird feeders, trash cans, um barbeque grills, all of those things are really strong scent attractants. And if provided the opportunity, bears may visit those. Making sure that pets are fed indoors or on a schedule, you don't leave pet food unattended. For livestock feed, you also don't leave livestock feed unattended. If you've got beehives, electric fencing is a great way to keep your beehives safe. And so, there's all these things that we just need to think about. We don't want to attract bears to residential areas, to farms, to homesteads. There's plenty of natural foods out there for them. So, we want to make sure bears are utilizing those natural foods and we're not drawing them in. But then the other part of it, too, is recognizing that yeah, when you're out in the woods hiking, hunting, you know, looking for mushrooms, any of it, there's always that chance that you might come across a bear. And so, understanding that, you know, value that siting from a distance. Give the bear an escape route. You can let the bear know that you're there, say, "Hey, bear. Hey, bear." Put your hands up over your head. But enjoy that siting from a distance. If a bear goes up a tree, that's its escape mechanism. Don't go under the tree and start taking pictures. You know? And then if you're camping, just make sure you've got that clean camp. Don't store food in your tent. Store it in a bear-proof container or a locked vehicle. And make sure you're keeping that clean campsite. So, if racoons might be attracted to it, so would bears. And so just think about it from that sense. You know, if a racoon gets into your garbage can, it's a lot easier for a 200-pound bear to do it, too.
Jill Pritchard: Absolutely. I'm curious, in your role, you probably hear a lot of myths about bears, and common misconceptions. Do you want to talk about any of those that you'd like to clear up?
Laura Conlee: Yeah, sure. I mean there's a lot of stereotypes out there, I guess you would say, about bears. I mean a lot of folks do think that they are dangerous animals. And the fact is, they're a wild animal. And you treat any wild animal with respect, regardless of if it's a 30-pound raccoon to a 200-pound bear, to a deer, even. So, all of those wildlife should be appreciated from a distance. Providing food attractants to them just allows them to come into more close contact with people. And for bears, they can become habituated where they start to lose their fear of people. They start to seek out those types of food sources. Yeah, so we always use the old adage, a fed bear is a dead bear. And unfortunately, there's a lot of truth to that. So, when bears are attracted to human associated food sources, they may spend a lot more time around human habitation, around houses, around you know, residential areas. And sometimes those bears start to seek out those food sources, and they start to do that pretty heavily. And so, when we have a bear that can't be deterred from that, unfortunately those are the bears that need to be removed from the population. And so, all of that is preventable, though. So, if we don't provide them the food sources, we don't have bears going down that road behaviorally. So, keeping that, you know, those bear aware tenets in mind, making sure that you're not providing those foods, and enjoying those sightings from a distance is really just in everyone's best interest, you know? Bears are a really important part of Missouri's biodiversity. And for a long time, they either weren't here, they were in really, really low numbers to the point where we didn't even realize they were here. And now they're back, and they're increasing. And that's a testament to the stewardship of the land of Missourians and the fact that we have this ample habitat for them.
And so, all of that is a success story. All of that is a great thing to think about. And so, while there may be human wildlife conflicts with bears, human/bear conflicts where bears are getting into trash and things like that, there's a lot that we can do to make sure those things don't happen, and they don't happen with increased frequency.
Jill Pritchard: Very well said. And right now, we're kind of getting into the spring, and that's a big time when they're coming out of their dens, and sightings of them will increase. But let's talk about what happens throughout the year.
Laura Conlee: Yeah, absolutely. So right now, we're at the den site. So, these bears are pretty much socked in until food becomes available. It's starting to get warm. They're going to start to become active. And they'll focus on green shoots that start to sprout, grasses as the early summer begins. By the time you get to mid-summer, there's a lot of berries available. And they focus their diet a lot on berries and insect larvae. So, they'll dig up ground nests, they'll dig up stumps looking for grubs and things like that. And when blackberries are ripened, they almost exclusively eat blackberries. They just basically hunker down in a patch and pick off those berries one by one. And then as the summer continues on, you get a shift in terms of the foods that are available. You start to get late summer fruits that come in. And as we get closer to August and to the fall months, bears kind of switch gears. And so, they enter this period where they are doing everything they can to fatten up for winter. So, they are eating as many calories as they possibly can for as long as they, possibly can. And they'll shift over to things like apples and cherries. And then once the hard mass comes in, they really focus on that. So, you're talking about like acorns, other types of nuts that come down. And they will feed super heavily on that. And then basically, denning is a trade-off. So when they start expanding more energy looking for food than they're actually gaining from food, they have that adaptation to be able to go into the winter den where they're not going to be eating or drinking for the better part of, you know, four to six months.
Jill Pritchard: And as far as that hibernation goes, a few things I thought were interesting is growing up, media and movies and cartoons taught us that bears hibernate in caves. And that's really not the case.
Laura Conlee: Not always, at least. Here in Missouri, we do have plenty of caves available for them. And we do get bears that use caves or rock ledges or other types of karst topography. But we also have bears in brush piles and along downed trees, and at the root ball of a blow down. And then we even get bears that basically just create a giant nest of leaves on the ground, and they'll just hunker down and sit there for the better part of the winter. And so, there's a lot of variability to the types of dens that we see. Most of our bears don't re-use dens. We have a couple that will re-use dens, um, with some frequency. But for the most part, it's unpredictable as to what they're going to den in.
One bear may den in a cave one year and a brush pile the next year, and then maybe sitting out in the open the year after that. So, there's a lot of variability there.
Jill Pritchard: And as far as hibernation goes, again, you know growing up, we thought oh, they're asleep for the whole period. But you know, it's not like that. They wake up.
Laura Conlee: They do, yeah. So, bears aren't really true hibernators. Their body temperature doesn't go super low. They do go through a lot of physiological changes, though. So, their system basically switches to a low metabolism. And they are living off of the fat stores that they have created because they're not eating during those winter months. And so, during that period when they're in the den, their bodies basically are a recycling system. It's using up energy and recycling everything. They're not making waste while they're in the den, but they're also not taking in any calories while they're in the den. And so, they are a little bit different, though, from other species that are true hibernators because bears can be aroused at any time. When we walk up to these dens, a lot of times they're looking at us and they know we're coming. Now on really cold mornings, yeah, we might find them a little bit more lethargic. You know, when you think about some of the children's books, the bear snores on and everything like that, that's more of a myth. That's not really the case. When we get there, these bears can up and move at any time. They just choose to stick with their den.
Jill Pritchard: Laura Conlee, Fur Bear Biologist with MDC, thank you so much for an incredible experience today. I really appreciate it.
Laura Conley: No problem. Glad it worked out.
Jill Pritchard: As Laura mentioned, Missouri's black bear population is growing and expanding. Missouri is home to around 540 to 840 black bears. Through these den checks and during bear trapping in the summer months, biologists like Laura are able to gain insight on bear movement patterns, their habitat preferences, population densities, and their annual lifecycle. Missouri's bear population is a part of a larger number of several thousand bears distributed throughout areas of Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. Bears don't know what a state boundary is. It's a wonderful conservation story that black bear numbers are rebounding in the state. Last summer, MDC even asked for public input on a proposed, highly regulated black bear hunting season. The earliest a season could occur is in the fall of 2021.
[Transition music playing in background.]
I want to thank MDC's Fur Bear Biologist Laura Conley for allowing me to tag along with her and her team during a den research check they performed earlier this year. It was an experience I still think about daily. For more information on Missouri's black bears, or on being bear aware, visit missouriconservation.org.
This is Jill Pritchard with the Missouri Department of Conservation, urging you to get your daily dose of the outdoors.
[End of recording.]