Into the Woods With a Bear Researcher

By | September 1, 2016
From Xplor: September/October 2016

Jeff Beringer studies bears. Maybe because his last name starts with “Ber?” Or maybe because studying bears in the woods is fun, surprising, and important? Let’s ask him!

Xplor: Jeff, how long have you been studying bears?

Jeff: Fifteen years. I got started studying bears in Tennessee, and I’ve been doing bear research for the Missouri Department of Conservation for about 10 years.

Xplor: Why are you researching bears in Missouri?

Jeff: Our bear population is growing, and that’s good news. For a long time, we had very few bears. That’s because people hunted and killed too many of them back before we had hunting laws. Now that bears are making a comeback, they’re spreading out to find food and mates. We need to understand bears so we can keep their numbers strong in Missouri — and help the people who live and camp near them stay safe.

Xplor: Why do you walk around the woods holding up a TV antenna?

Jeff: My team and I are trying to find a bear den. We outfit the bears we study with satellite collars, and we check up on the bears every winter. To find them, we use a special antenna that beeps when there’s a bear nearby. When the beep gets really loud, we start looking for a cave, a hole, or a big hollow tree. Anything a bear can fit its head in, it can fit its body in.

Xplor: What’s the first thing you do when you find a sleeping bear?

Jeff: We look at the bear’s size to determine how much knockout medicine to give it, and then we poke it in the butt with a needle.

Xplor: Is it scary to poke a sleeping bear?

Jeff: A little. Some bears are more reactive, and some hardly lift their heads up. They’re more likely to be in a deeper sleep when it’s really cold, so we try to check on adult bears without cubs in January.

Xplor: When do you look for the cubs?

Jeff: We check on the cubs in March. We hold them to keep them warm, but you should never try to catch and hold a cub.

Xplor: Here’s a bear with a bandana around its eyes. Are you worried it will recognize you and warn the others?

Jeff: Ha! No, after the knockout medicine goes to work, we put protective drops in their eyes and then cover them up. Also, when their eyes are covered, they seem to be more relaxed.

Xplor: It also looks like you give the bear a manicure while it’s asleep.

Jeff: Actually, we do a lot of body measurements — paws, claws, neck, teeth, how long the bear is, and how much it weighs. We want to see how much it has grown and to measure its health overall. We compare the info we gather during each encounter to past records.

Xplor: What’s the most fun thing about studying bears?

Jeff: Visiting the dens and seeing how the mama bears do from year to year. It’s always nice to get reacquainted with them. Sometimes when we are homing in on a den and finally find it, we see a mama bear looking at us. She knows we’re coming.

Xplor: What was your scariest experience studying bears?

Jeff: I was crawling in this rock crevice, and a bear made a bluff charge — that’s when they come close, but don’t make contact. It actually spit on me! It was a mama bear with three yearlings, and I was trying to count them. I tell everyone never corner a bear, and then I corner a bear…

Xplor: What should Xplor readers know about bears?

Jeff: A fed bear is a dead bear. A bear that learns to link food with people will become a danger and have to be killed. Be careful to bring in pet food and garbage, especially at night, and especially if you live or camp in bear country. That’s most of southern Missouri.

Xplor: What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about bears?

Jeff: They’re very intelligent. I saw a video of a bear laying branches across an electric fence to get to honey without getting shocked. Other than humans, bears are the most intelligent mammals in Missouri.

Xplor: One last question — do bears poop in the woods?

Jeff: Not as much as you’d think! When bears go into hibernation in November, they don’t eat, drink, or poop for five months!

Xplor: That’s amazing! Thanks, Jeff!

How big is your paw?

A bear’s front paw is about 5 inches wide, and its big toe is on the outside — the opposite from yours.

Learn more about Jeff’s cool research at the Missouri Black Bear Project, where you can track individual bears. Find it at

How big is your paw?

A bear’s front paw is about 5 inches wide, and its big toe is on the outside — the opposite from yours.

A FED bear is a DEAD bear.

Don’t feed the bears!

And More...

This Issue's Staff

Bonnie Chasteen
Les Fortenberry
Karen Hudson
Angie Daly Morfeld
Noppadol Paothong
Marci Porter
Mark Raithel
Laura Scheuler
Matt Seek
David Stonner
Nichole LeClair Terrill
Stephanie Thurber
Cliff White