JEFFERSON CITY–Resource Scientist Jeff Beringer has a piece of advice for Missouri outdoors people and landowners: Be bear aware.
Beringer is the bear specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC). When someone sees a bear somewhere in the Show-Me State, they call him. His phone rings more often each spring, and this year is no exception.
“The number of calls always goes up in the spring when bears become more active,” says Beringer. “I had one lady call me from Texas County yesterday. She had been feeding her dog meat scraps in the yard, and the dog wasn’t eating them all. She was surprised when she found a bear cleaning up the leftovers.”
Then there was a turkey hunter who found a bear nosing around the cooler in his hunting camp. Beringer said the man was thrilled to get to see a bear.
Sightings like these have grown more frequent in recent years due to a gradual increase in the number of bears in the Show-Me State. Some of Missouri’s bears have come from Arkansas, which conducted a successful bear reintroduction program in the 1960s. Beringer also has evidence that suggests an isolated population of native bears survived in southwest Missouri and has contributed to the growth of Missouri’s bear population. The great majority of bears in Missouri live south of I-44, but sightings have been confirmed in every part of the state.
Beringer shares the turkey hunter’s excitement about the black bear’s comeback, but he has serious concerns about sightings that involve human-related food sources.
“There’s definitely an element of truth in the old saying that ‘a fed bear is a dead bear,’” says Beringer. “Bears that get used to finding food around homes, businesses and campgrounds often come to grief. Those situations can be dangerous for people, too.”
You don’t have to deliberately feed bears to get them in trouble, according to Beringer. Simply leaving food where they can get it is enough. And you might be surprised what qualifies as food for a bear. Their tastes extend far beyond honey. Pet food, livestock feed, birdseed, sugar water in hummingbird feeders and garbage all are tempting to hungry bears.
“Bears are more visible this time of year because they have been fasting all winter, and many of their natural food sources, such as berries and nuts, aren’t available yet,” says Beringer. “Bears are constantly on the move, and they will check out anything that smells like it might be good to eat.”
If you see a bear in your area, Beringer recommends bringing birdfeeders inside for a couple weeks and not putting trash out until right before pickup time. Livestock feed should be kept in bear-proof buildings or containers, and pets should be fed inside or only given as much as they can eat at one time.
“Bears are naturally shy of people, which is a good thing,” says Beringer, “but food left out for dogs and cats is a temptation that a hungry bear finds hard to resist.”
Campers can avoid creating “fed bears” by keeping food and trash locked in vehicles and not discarding garbage in or around campsites.
Beringer said chance encounters with bears usually are brief, ending when the bear realizes a human is near and retreats. However, accidental meetings can be dangerous if the bear is startled or cornered or if a person gets between a sow and her cubs.
“Black bears are much more powerful for their size than the average person realizes,” he said. “They can be dangerous when they feel threatened.”
One effective way of avoiding surprise meetings is to make noise. Making noise is not compatible with some activities, such as hunting and wildlife photography. For these activities, Beringer recommends being alert and making sure a bear doesn’t get too close for comfort before alerting it to your presence.
“Bears’ hearing and sense of smell are excellent,” says Beringer, “but their eyesight is poor. They sometimes don’t recognize people, especially those wearing camouflage, even at close range if the wind is blowing the human scent away from them.”
At such times, a bear may rear up on its hind legs. This is not a threat, says Beringer, but an attempt to use its eyes and nose to best advantage.
If you spot a bear that has not seen you yet, Beringer recommends leaving the area quickly and quietly. If the bear is aware of your presence, avoid making eye contact, which bears interpret as aggressive behavior. The best thing in this situation is to look down and walk away slowly while speaking in a normal voice.
A bear on a narrow trail may feel cornered. The best strategy here is to step off the trail on the downhill side and leave the area quietly. Do not make sudden movements or run.
When threatened or defending cubs, black bears often make huffing sounds, pop their jaws or beat the ground with their front paws. This is a warning that you are too close. Black bears also make mock charges, rushing at intruders, stopping and then retreating. People who take the hint and withdraw immediately after a mock charge almost always avoid further trouble.
Although attacks by black bears are rare, they do occur. Black bears can run much faster than humans can, and they are excellent climbers. Consequently, fleeing or climbing a tree is not advised. The most effective strategy is to fight back with whatever you have – a knife, a rock, a stick or any other weapon. People have fought off black bear attacks with nothing more than their fists. Striking a bear on its face is most effective. Pepper spray also can stop a bear attack.
If you encounter an aggressive bear, contact the nearest MDC office or sheriff’s department immediately. The Conservation Department has specially trained employees to deal with problem or aggressive bears.
For more information about living with bears, visit mdc.mo.gov/node/4607.