The black bear is one of the largest and heaviest wild mammals in Missouri with some reaching up to 500 pounds. It is also a long-distance roamer constantly in search of food. While black bears are usually very secretive and avoid encounters with people, a growing number of bears in the state is resulting in more encounters with and more interest in the big bruins.
According to the Missouri Department of Conservation, bear numbers in Missouri have increased significantly over the last 50 years and Missouri is now home to between 540 – 840 black bears. MDC also reports that bear numbers are increasing by nearly 9 percent each year and bear range in the state is also growing.
“Missouri’s black bears are found south of the Missouri River, primarily south of Interstate 44,” said MDC State Furbearer Biologist Laura Conlee. “Missouri’s bear population is also part of a larger population of several thousand bears distributed throughout the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and the Ouachita Mountains of Oklahoma and Arkansas.”
Bears on the Move
Conlee added that black bears also continue to be on the move around and through the state.
“Bear numbers are growing and sightings are becoming increasingly more common in areas of the state that have not seen bears for many years,” she said. “That also has more people interested in Missouri black bears. So far in 2020, we’ve already received nearly 250 bear reports with multiple reports coming from areas around Lake of the Ozarks and along I-44.”
An adult male black bear that attracted public attention earlier this year is an example of how far bears can travel and how many people are interested in them. The bear is suspected to have traveled from Wisconsin, through Illinois, and into Missouri in early July. It swam the Mississippi River from Illinois and entered the Show-Me State near Elsberry before making its way into St. Charles County near Wentzville. There, it found itself stuck between major highways just north of I-70 and near I-40/61 with a gathering of hundreds of people watching it nearby.
MDC staff found and immobilized the bear, placed tags in its ears, transported it to a nearby area of suitable bear habitat outside the very busy urban corridor, and released it unharmed. While MDC has not actively tracked the location of this bear, photos submitted by the public suggest that the bear has moved south through the Missouri Ozarks.
While this bear’s movements are not normal for an adult bear, Conlee noted that bears, especially young dispersing males, can travel long distances – including into places they may not be welcome.
Be Bear Aware
Bears spend most of their time searching for food and are especially attracted to easy meals – including those provided by people. MDC encourages people to remove or properly store bear attractants from their property, such as bird feeders, trash, barbeque grills, pet food, and food waste.
MDC emphasizes that people should never approach or feed a bear. Intentionally feeding bears can be dangerous because it makes the bears comfortable around people. It can also lead bears to cause significant damage to property while searching for a meal.
“When bears lose their fear of humans, they could approach people in search of food or may defend the food sources or territory they associate with food provided by people, which can make them dangerous,” Conlee said. “When this happens, the bear cannot be relocated and has to be destroyed. A fed bear is a dead bear.”
MDC offers the following tips to avoid attracting black bears to possible food sources:
- Store garbage, recyclables, and compost inside a secure building or in a bear-proof container until trash pick-up day.
- Keep grills and smokers clean and store them inside.
- Don’t leave pet food outside. Feed pets a portion at each meal and remove the empty containers.
- Refrain from using bird feeders in bear country from April through November. If in use, hang them at least 10 feet high and 4 feet away from any structure. Keep in mind that even if a bear cannot get to the birdseed, the scent could still attract it to the area.
- Use electric fencing to keep bears away from beehives, chicken coops, vegetable gardens, orchards, and other potential food sources.
- Keep campsites clean and store all food, toiletries, and trash in a secure vehicle or strung high between two trees. Do not keep food or toiletries in a tent, and do not burn or bury garbage or food waste.
While black bears are generally shy and non-aggressive, MDC emphasizes that people need to leave bears alone and make sure the bear has an escape route if encountered.
“Be aware of your surroundings,” Conlee said. “If there is evidence of a bear in the area, such as tracks or scat, avoid the area. While out in bear country, make noises such as clapping, singing or talking loudly to prevent surprising a bear. Travel in a group if possible and keep dogs leashed.”
For more information on Missouri black bears and how to Be Bear Aware, visit MDC online at mdc.mo.gov/bearaware.
MDC encourages people to submit bear sightings online to mdc.mo.gov/reportbears.
MDC Bear Management
With Missouri’s growing black bear population, MDC takes an active approach to bear management, which includes extensive research of the state’s bear population, the “Be Bear Aware” education campaign, and response and mitigation related to human-bear conflicts.
Additionally, MDC recently updated the state’s Black Bear Management Plan, which will guide bear management over the next 10 years. The Black Bear Management Plan’s goals, objectives, and strategies focus on the multifaceted nature of bear management and were developed with staff, agency partners, and public input.
The three goals of MDC’s Black Bear Management Plan are:
- Use science-based methods to manage a self-sustaining population of black bears, focusing on research and monitoring, population management, and habitat management.
- Increase statewide awareness of Missouri’s black bear population and management program through coordinated outreach and education.
- Minimize and address human-bear conflicts.
Learn more about MDC’s Black Bear Management Plan at mdc.mo.gov/bears.