Spring is when Missouri's black bears (the only species of bear found in Missouri) are actively foraging, looking for new territories and, in the case of some females, raising cubs.
“In passing down Bull Creek and in some places along the valley in which we are now encamped, the tracks of bear upon the snow, some of enormous size, have been very plentifully observed…”
This Jan. 6, 1819 entry from Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s journal, written when he was what is now Christian County, indicates a couple of things about the Ozarks outdoors of 200 years ago: For one thing, it shows that then, just as now, bears aren’t completely inactive in winter. The presence of tracks on the snow indicates there’s periodic activity by bears in winter.
On a broader sense, it shows that then, just as now, bears were part of the landscape in southern Missouri. Bears may not be as “plentifully observed” as they once were this area, but they’re still around and this is the time of year when it’s a good idea to be “bear aware.”
Spring is when Missouri’s black bears (the only species of bear found in Missouri) are actively foraging, looking for new territories and, in the case of some females, raising cubs. The normal size for a healthy adult male in Missouri is 200-400 pounds (although they can be larger). The range for females is approximately 100-200 pounds.
Black bears ranged across much of Missouri in pre-settlement times. As the state became settled, the state’s black bear population dwindled. They were shot for their meat, because of the alarm they caused (whether they were harming anything or not) and because of the market for bear grease that existed in the U.S. for a period of time in the 19th century. A few bears were being reported in the southeastern part of the state in the early 1900s but, for the most part, it was thought this large mammal had disappeared from the rest of the state.
From 1958 to 1968, Arkansas trapped more than 200 black bears from areas in the northern U.S. and Canada and re-located them to Arkansas to join the few wild black bears that were thought to be still roaming the Arkansas countryside. This population took hold and soon, wandering bears from Arkansas began appearing in Missouri.
Research is being done in Missouri to provide more insight on the number of bears we have in the state and what their seasonal routines are.
While humans need to have a healthy respect for bears, it also needs to be remembered that bears do not aggressively stalk humans in the hopes of ambushing us on some dark forested trail. Like most wildlife, the wild black bears people encounter in the outdoors would much rather be away from people than around them.
However, bears are opportunistic foragers and they are inquisitive and that’s what can get them into trouble with humans. Like any wildlife species, black bears are in a perennial search for their next meal. When they are successful at finding food, they remember where it came from. If that food source happens to be a garbage bin, bird feeder, beehive, campground or other human-occupied area, bears may alter their feeding habits into a routine that can be problematic for humans.
The trouble is compounded when bears are purposely fed by people who think they’re helping them survive or are trying to lure them in for a good photo or video opportunity. If a bear visits an area and is rewarded with food, you can bet it will return. Black bears are very powerful and can cause substantial damage to buildings, trailers, vehicles and just about anything else that gets in their way of their search for food.
So, the message is simple – don’t give bears a reason to come to your home or farm. Putting out food or doing anything to encourage a bear to come to your property or stay on your property will only result in trouble for humans and, if the bear stays around the premises, wildlife experts will likely have no other option but to destroy the bear. If you see a bear with cubs, keep your distance because the mother will defend its young.
More information about black bears in Missouri can be found at your local Missouri De4partment of Conservation office or at www.missouriconservation.org
Francis Skalicky is the media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Southwest Region. For more information about conservation issues, call 417-895-6880.