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

News from the region
Saint Louis
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St. LOUIS, Mo.—Several confirmed bear sightings recently in the St. Louis region, including in Ballwin, Wright City, Cuba, and multiple accounts in Jefferson County, show us that black bears are becoming part of Missouri’s landscape once again. 

Why the increase in sightings recently?  The Missouri Department of Conservation’s (MDC) ongoing bear research suggest the Show-Me-State is currently home to around 350 black bears. “Most of our bears are found in the southern part of the state.  That’s where the best habitat is,” said Tom Meister, MDC Wildlife Damage Control Biologist for MDC’s St. Louis Region. 

However, research also indicates the population seems to be expanding slowly, both in total numbers and northward.  As younger males come of age, older, established males chase younger ones out of their territories, putting the juvenile bears on the move.  Seeking food and mates also compels bears to push into new areas.  This recent uptick in sightings is likely an indicator of this expansion.  

These creatures 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 interactions.  MDC biologists suggest a few simple measures can avoid potential problems.

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 in early summer.

“The bears have been out of hibernation since spring.  Now they’re hungry.  They were dormant for almost six months, 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. 

Despite their primary concentration in the Ozarks, the latest sightings in the St. Louis metro area confirm MDC wildlife biologists’ anticipation that bear encounters will probably increase as time goes by.

Meister suggested the following tips to avoid issues if a bear has been sighted in the area.

  • 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.”

These measures will also reduce the risk of annoyance from more common critters like raccoons and coyotes.

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 sighting.  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.

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