MDC biologists say don’t feed bears, take precautions when camping

News from the region
Saint Louis
Published Date

St. LOUIS, Mo.—Spring is a time when many things emerge in nature, including black bears.  Bears are making a comeback to Missouri.  They are part of our state’s natural history and many people enjoy the thought of seeing one of these impressive animals.  With an expanding population of bears; however, comes an increased potential of bear-human conflicts.  According the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), a few simple, common sense measures though can avoid most issues.

“Most of our bears are found in the southern part of the state.  That’s where the best habitat is.  We believe there are about 300 of them south of I-44,” said Tom Meister, Wildlife Damage Control Biologist for MDC’s St. Louis Region. 

While generally not aggressive, like any wild animal black bears are driven to find food.  It takes a lot of calories to fuel an animal that typically weighs several hundred pounds.  Their hunger can be especially acute after they emerge from dens in early spring.

“The bears are coming out of hibernation.  They’re hungry, they’ve been dormant for almost six months and their bellies are empty and they’re looking for food.  So we don’t want to tempt them,” Meister said.

Food, or rather the lack of it, is key to avoiding conflicts with bears.  Meister stressed not to offer them food, either intentionally or unintentionally.  A bear that becomes accustomed to obtaining food from humans can grow aggressive.  This could result in problematic encounters, property damage, hostile behavior, and ultimately the euthanizing of the bear. 

St. Louis area residents who travel to the southern Missouri Ozarks on fishing, hunting, hiking, float or camping trips may have a higher chance of a bear encounter.  The likelihood is greater still when staying in established campsites where human food temptations are commonly found.  Meister outlined some simple guidelines on averting problems while spending the night in bear country.

  • Never deliberately offer a bear food!
  • Keep your campsite clean and free of food odor
  • Wash cookware and remove garbage daily
  • Do not leave garbage in the camp overnight
  • Pack food items in closed, airtight containers and place them in your car or other secure place.  Keep in mind coolers are not airtight, and bears often associate them with food.
  • Treat nonfood items such as gum, soap, toothpaste or deodorant as food. They are attractive to a bear's acute sense of smell.

Despite their primary concentration in the Ozarks, there have been a limited number of recorded bear sightings in counties near the metro area, including St. Louis, St. Charles, Jefferson, Franklin, Warren and Lincoln. MDC wildlife biologists anticipate these encounters will probably increase as time goes by.

Meister suggested the following tips to avoid issues closer to home.

  • If you feed pets outside, be sure to bring dog or cat food in at night
  • Keep all outdoor garbage receptacles closed tightly and locked if possible
  • Secure large, outdoor trash bins so they cannot be turned over
  • If possible, keep trash containers inside at night. Place trash and garbage outside only on the day of pickup.
  • Empty large, outdoor trash bins at least once a week and wash with disinfectant

 “We also recommend bringing bird feeders in after April,” Meister pointed out.  “There’s plenty of natural food out there for birds to find.  It’s just another attractant that might cause an issue with bears.”

Even though it’s less likely to spot black bears near an urban locale like St. Louis, these measures will reduce the risk of annoyance from critters like raccoons and coyotes as well.

With a few sensible measures, it’s possible to welcome back Missouri’s black bears as our neighbors in the wild, without inviting them to the dinner table.

For more on black bears in Missouri, go to