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Bear necessities

With their guns, tasers, badges and body cameras, the uniformed Missouri Department of Conservation agents are an intimidating, protective presence for the crew of MDC biologists and tagalong guests trekking toward a black bear den in the remote Ozarks timber of Shannon County.

As soon as cuddly cubs are placed in the agents’ arms, however, their tough exterior softens into snuggles and smiles.

And they’re not the only ones handing out bear hugs on this warm March day. A contingent from MFA Incorporated as well as some local officials and conservation staff from other areas of the state were allowed to accompany the MDC bear team on this den visit as part of the department’s public education and outreach efforts. As the sedated mama bear was evaluated by the MDC crew, her three cubs were checked, microchipped, weighed and passed around for the eager group to hold.

“To say I was excited about this opportunity would be an understatement,” said Emily Beck, MFA’s conservation specialist. “I gladly drove five hours one way to South Missouri to just see a Missouri bear. There were plenty of others attending who felt the same. Everyone in our group was able to hold the cubs and see the mother bear. That’s when it hit me—this is conservation working at optimum. We’ve been able to bring back a species that was thought to be eradicated from the land it once roamed. It makes me realize maybe our farming goals are a lot more obtainable than we think.”

The den visit was part of a 10-year reproductive study that has provided the department with information to quantify and predict the health and growth of Missouri’s black bears. These efforts show the population is growing and expanding from its primary range in forested areas south of I-44 into other areas of the state. Most recent estimates show that Missouri now has more than 900 bears, a number calculated from data collected during den surveys such as this.

“Missouri has a great conservation story in the recovery and revival of our black bear population, and we want to keep it that way,” said Nate Bowersock, MDC furbearer biologist. “That means we need to regularly monitor their numbers and health to make sure they’re continuing to thrive. If we start to see issues, it’s important for us to take action as soon as possible.”

Bringing back bears
Such care wasn’t always the case. Once abundant across Missouri, native black bears were nearly eradicated by unregulated hunting as the state was settled in the 1800s, and by the 1930s, they had all but disappeared.

“We really thought our Missouri bear population was gone,” Bowersock said. “At one point, it was the most commonly harvested animal in the state besides deer.”

In the 1960s, the Game and Fish Commission in neighboring Arkansas trapped more than 200 bears from Minnesota and Manitoba, Canada, and relocated them to the state to bolster the remnants of its native population. This project was highly successful, and bears from Arkansas eventually began making their way into Missouri. Most of the bears seen in Missouri today are the result of Arkansas’ reintroduction program, although genetic evidence collected by MDC suggests that a small indigenous population may have survived in remote parts of the Show-Me State.

“Through our DNA work, we’ve actually identified that we had a remnant of Missouri bears, even though the majority we’ve studied are from the Manitoba strain,” said Scott McWilliams,

MDC wildlife damage biologist who has been working with Missouri bears for more than 30 years. “We didn’t do anything to change the state’s population, but they’ve naturally been coming back. We’re seeing the numbers grow about 10% every year.”

As bear sightings became more frequent, MDC established a formal plan to encourage a self-sustaining population through research, monitoring and habitat management. Missouri’s bear research began in earnest in 2010, using methods that include trapping and radio-collaring females and collecting fur samples from hair snares made from barbed wire stretched across trees.

“We’re using those hair samples to study the abundance of the bear population and link landscape features to where we’re detecting bears,” Bowersock said. “That allows us to better predict how our bears distribute across the state based on factors such as forest cover, terrain or human development. That’s going to be important as we move forward with our bear management plan and put more resources into outreach and education.”

Measuring and monitoring
When doing den checks, March is usually the best month, Bowersock noted, because the female bears, or sows, are still in hibernation mode and their cubs are old enough to be handled. Black bears breed during the summer, but the embryo does not grow until the female begins denning in November. The cubs are born hairless and weighing approximately 8 ounces in January and will nurse as the mother continues to hibernate.

By the time the MDC team visited this particular sow’s den on March 11, her three male cubs were about 6 weeks old, the largest weighing 5 pounds and the other two about 2.5 pounds each. Their 15-year-old mother, first collared and studied in 2011, weighed around 250 pounds. She had made a winter home for herself and her cubs underneath a pile of felled trees and branches from a logging slash. Bowersock had to crawl into the cramped space to perform a checkup on the tranquilized sow.

“Bears go through lots of changes throughout the year, and staying on top of how healthy they are is really important,” Bowersock said. “We check how much fat she has, examine her teeth and look for signs of other issues. This sow was in good health and had a lot of body fat. We also document how many cubs she had and what sex they are, and we take DNA samples to check the relatedness of the population. And if we’re visiting a den with yearling cubs, we see how many of those survived from the previous year. We can use all that information in our models to help us track the trajectory of the population.”

At the end of this visit, the sow’s GPS collar was removed, her role in the study complete. She’s among 15 female black bears that were surveyed in their winter dens this year.
“We’ll have four more bears we can monitor next denning season, and then we’re wrapping up this current research study,” Bowersock said. “We’ve answered a lot of really good questions but that opens up new questions to explore.”

As she slowly began awakening from her sedation, the team carefully placed the mama’s cubs back inside the den and waited to see that she was alert before leaving the area. Bowersock assured the group that the bear family would be unfazed by the visit.

“In most cases, we should always leave wildlife alone if we can, but for this kind of work, bears don’t seem to be overly concerned about human interaction,” he said. “For Pete’s sake, I was laying in the den next to her. It doesn’t disrupt them at all.”

Cubs typically stay with their mother for two summers, McWilliams said, before they go off on their own. As yearlings, the female cubs will establish home ranges near their mother, while the males will begin to disperse into new areas.

“This year’s cubs will usually be in the den until about the first of April, when they weigh around 10 pounds. And when mama starts moving, they will follow her,” he explained. “She keeps them all summer long, and they nurse until sometime this fall. Then they’ll start eating like mom teaches them, and they all go in the den together again for the winter. Those yearling cubs will also hibernate, but it’s like any kid. They’re more active than their mama and don’t sleep as well.”

Bears being bears
Black bears are omnivores that eat a variety of foods, Bowersock said. In Missouri, their diet largely consists of acorns along with other nuts and seeds, grass, berries and other fruits. They will also eat bees and honey, many types of insects, fish, frogs, small rodents, fawns, bird eggs and carrion.

“Hollywood always shows bears being these big human-hunting, meat-eating animals that are out to get you,” Bowersock said. “But at the end of the day, bears just want to do bear stuff. They just want to go eat food, and most of their diet is plant-based. The further east in the U.S. you get, you see bears eating less meat because there’s more vegetation available throughout the year.”

One thing that helps the black bear population grow, Bowersock pointed out, is that the species has a robust immune system and rarely shows signs of disease. Only recently have a few bears shown signs of mange, a skin mite that leads to hair loss.

“Mange has started to become more common for bears to get in the eastern U.S.,” Bowersock said, “but we’ve only seen the disease in a handful of cases in Missouri.”
In addition to strong immunity, bears also have an incredible ability to heal quickly from wounds, Bowersock said. These biological anomalies are among reasons he’s concentrated his career on these ursine animals, previously studying grizzlies and black bears in Yellowstone National Park before joining MDC two years ago.

“They’re just fascinating creatures to study,” he said. “Can we learn something from their immune systems to help humans fight off diseases better? Can we copy their ability to slow metabolism and survive with little resources for long periods of time—
essentially find a way to make humans more bear-like for something like space travel? These are some of the things that scientists are trying to figure out.”

Opening opportunities
In 2021, after MDC determined that the state’s bear population had grown to self-sustaining levels, Missouri opened its first-ever regulated black bear hunt. The season is only open for 10 days in October and includes zone-specific harvest and permit quotas to prevent overharvest. MDC also bans the use of bait and dogs and requires hunters to recover the meat, which is a high-quality protein source. These strict guidelines make it one of the more conservative approaches to bear management in the country, Bowersock said.

“We’ve now had three seasons that provide Missourians an opportunity to hunt bears while still allowing the population to grow,” he said. “Down the road, we will potentially move to using hunting as a management tool, but right now we’re not at that point. We still want to see our bear numbers increase and expand across the state.”

In 2023, MDC offered 400 permits to harvest a maximum of 32 black bears. Hunters ultimately killed 12 bears statewide. Based on current population estimates, Bowersock said he is recommending similar guidelines for 2024.

Missouri residents who will be at least 11 years old by the first day of the hunt are eligible to apply for bear permits during from May 1-31. Permits will be assigned through a random drawing. Interested individuals may apply by visiting, using MDC’s free MO Hunting app or calling 1-800-392-4115.
As the population grows, MDC is also addressing ways to reduce human-bear conflict. Black bears aren’t inherently dangerous to humans, Bowersock explained, but they are attracted to food sources such as bird feeders, garbage, grills, and feed for pets and livestock.

“Unless you corner a bear, they tend to be quite fearful of humans,” he said. “They’re probably more scared of us than we are them.”

The department participates in the national “BearWise” program that provides sound information and solutions to help people, neighborhoods and communities prevent conflicts with black bears. Removing or securing food attractants is key to preventing most human-bear conflicts, said Greg Collier, MDC agriculture liaison.

“We really get much more excitement than we do concerns about bears,” Collier said. “People are thrilled when they get to see a bear in the wild. Most of the damage reports we see are black bears discovering a backyard birdfeeder or dog food on the porch. The main issues for agriculture have been bears getting into chicken coops and beehives, so we encourage using electric fencing around those areas. Bears really don’t like to be shocked, so that’s highly effective.”

People should never approach a bear or feed them, intentionally or accidentally, Collier added. When bears lose their fear of humans, they may become bold in search of food. MDC encourages bear sightings to be reported at Damage or nuisance activity from a bear can also be reported to MDC regional offices or local conservation agents.

“Black bear is an iconic species that has an important place in Missouri’s ecosystem,” Bowersock said. “We have great bear habitat, especially in southern Missouri, and they can certainly prosper here, just as they have in the past. By continuing to maintain those natural resources, having regulations in place that protect bears and being aware of how to interact safely with these animals, we’re giving them the space they need to rebuild the presence they once had in our landscape.”

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