The Bear Truth

By Kathy Etling | April 2, 2000
From Missouri Conservationist: Apr 2000

Once upon a time, there were few if any wild black bears in Missouri. If there were any bears living here, they kept themselves well hidden in the deepest recesses of our Ozark woodlands.

Meanwhile, about 40 years ago, our neighbors in Arkansas were involved in a grand experiment. From 1958 to 1968, wildlife officials there restocked 254 Minnesota and Manitoba black bears to join the 30 to 40 Arkansas bears estimated at the time to be roaming the state.

Arkansas bears did what came naturally--they bred and bore litters. Bear densities increased. At some point, the more adventurous bears among them--mostly young males on their own for the first time--began seeking out territories with fewer bears.

Some traveled north. Most of the Missourians who spotted these first visitors to our state were thrilled. A couple of them, unfortunately, shot first and asked questions later, more to prove that they had actually seen a bear than because of any imminent threat. Many of those first bears shot in Missouri were the actual bears released in Arkansas.

Those people happy that bears had arrived in our state duly reported each sighting to friends, neighbors and wildlife biologists. Seeing bears in some areas became fairly commonplace; the idea of bears here in Missouri, cozily familiar.

Missouri black bears now number somewhere between 150 and 300 individuals, according to Dave Hamilton, the Conservation Department's furbearer biologist. And because photos of sows with young cubs have not been taken, no hard evidence yet exists to prove, beyond a doubt, that any litter has been born in the state. That may be because black bears are generally secretive.

Male bears, or boars, are loners except during the mating season. Female bears--sows--give birth every other year. The average litter consists of from two to four cubs, and cubs stay with their mother for about 17 months before striking out on their own.

Black bear breeding peaks in July. When a boar mates with a sow, his sperm fertilizes her ova to create a blastocyst, a hollow ball of cells, that floats freely within her uterus in a state of embryonic arrest for up to five months. The embryo or embryos within this blastocyst will develop no further until implanted in the sow's uterine wall later that fall.

As summer progresses, the female roams about her home range, looking for choice foods. When acorns mature in September, bears begin a period of frenzied feeding that may last for up to 20 hours a day. Gorging on ripe acorns can result in an animal gaining as much as two pounds of fat per day. Acorns are a critical food source for Ozark black bears. When the acorn crop goes bust, pregnant sows enter hibernation in such poor shape their fetuses will not survive.

Colder weather and reduced daylight combine to signal black bears that it's time to find a den. Just before a pregnant sow dens, the free- floating blastocyst finally implants itself in their uterine wall. While the sow remains in her winter den--in a rock cavern, in a hollow dug out under a log, or in any other protected location--the fetuses will gestate for two months.

Cubs are born while the female is still sleeping. And although a hibernating sow does not eat or drink, if she was in good physical shape when she entered her den she will produce enough milk to support her cubs until they emerge in springtime.

A bear cub's life is fraught with danger. Some studies suggest only 40 to 50 percent of them will survive to their third birthday. Young sows or sows in less than peak condition sometimes abandon their cubs. Some cubs will be killed by dogs or coyotes while others will be hit by vehicles. Because of all these hazards, bear populations usually grow slowly.

Through the years, Missouri bears have behaved themselves in near-model fashion, but there have been scattered incidents, mainly bears robbing beehives for honey, or stealing dog food. One bear killed a few goats.

The good news is that no people have been attacked. But good news has a way of insulating folks from danger that could materialize at any moment. When people lose their fear of and respect for these powerful animals, as when bears lose their fear of people, trouble can develop quickly.

A good example comes from upper New York state, where an aspiring wildlife photographer spotted a bear foraging. He lured it closer with tuna fish, placed the can on the ground and backed up to take photos. The bear, busy gobbling up the tuna, turned its rear end to the man.

The man grabbed the can away, put it back where he wanted it and once more backed off with his camera. When the bear turned its back again, the man became infuriated. He kicked the bear in its big, furry behind and put 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

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Tracy Ritter
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer