What is big and black, loves honey and is returning to Missouri? If you answered “black bears,” then you would be correct.
During the 18th and 19th centuries black bears were in abundance across the entire state of Missouri. However, by the 1890s, the Missouri bear population had dwindled to zero.
“As in many portions of the eastern United States, primary contributors to the previous decline of black bears in Missouri have been attributed to land-use practices and harvest, in particular, urbanization and large-scale conversion of forested land for agriculture,” said Jerrold Belant, co-principle investigator for the Missouri Black Bear Project,
In the 1800s, logging was an important industry in Missouri. Logging, along with increased urbanization, reduced the forested areas greatly. The timber was used for many things, such as building houses and providing heat in the winter.
Along with deforestation and the conversion of land to agriculture, the bears were also hunted for their meat, oil and furs. These items were often sold or traded in exchange for other goods. A bearskin was seen as a “symbol of status as well as the number ells of bear oil a man possessed,” according to the Arkansas Black Bear Association. [Editor’s note: an “ell” was formed from the hide and neck of a deer and was used to contain bear oil.]
“The late 1800s is when the population declined rapidly here [in Missouri],” said Lori Eggert, co-principle investigator for the Missouri Black Bear Project. “Humans do a lot of things that would scare off big, shy creatures. Hunting was uncontrolled at that point. These are large animals that do not have high density populations, so it does not take a lot of hunting to reduce the population sizes.”
Bears were not only disappearing throughout Missouri, but they were disappearing from Arkansas as well. In 1959, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission began a black bear reintroduction program. Approximately 254 bears were transported from Minnesota and Manitoba, Canada, to Arkansas between 1959 and 1967. At first, these releases were considered a failure, but by 1980, roughly 1,200 to 1,500 bears were in the Ozark and Ouachita regions.
“Even though it was a hard reintroduction with no support for the bears, they did really well,” Eggert said.
Through natural migration these bears have slowly been moving back into Missouri. In 2008, the Missouri Department of Conservation set up a management plan for the black bears in Missouri. It includes the history of the bears, a goal statement, four black bear program goals and the current status of the bears. The MDC is also in a long-term collaboration with Mississippi State University and the University of Missouri. This collaboration is called the Missouri Black Bear Project.
The project estimates black bear abundance, population trends and movement patterns. It also assesses various elements of resource selection for the bears. Jerrold Belant, Lori Eggert and Jeff Beringer are co-principle investigators for this project. Eggert and her team extensively look at the genetics of the black bears, while Belant’s team estimates the abundance of the black bears and quantifies demographic elements of the population — such as reproduction, survival and mortality.
Missouri citizens are also getting involved with this cause. The Missouri Black Bear Foundation aims to encourage the public to view the black bears in Missouri as a positive change. They hope to do this with educational programs, research projects and public outreach.
Despite this positive encouragement, there is sure to be opposition. Missouri is a large agricultural state. As bear numbers increase, farmers’ fears of missing livestock and damaged crops are sure to also increase.
“We’ve had two rare instances that deal with agriculture,” said Justin Gailey, a wildlife biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation. “We had two different bears deciding to get into a chicken house and cause some problems. That is pretty rare because [chickens] are not generally a large portion of a bear’s diet.”
Belant said there are techniques farmers can use to reduce the damage to agricultural crops. He also said that the bears’ consumption and damage of corn, small grains, fruit trees and beehives are other agricultural problems.
Farmers are not the only people fearful of the bears. The public is concerned with the conflicts the bears could cause as their population increases.
“In states throughout the U.S., the most frequent conflicts between bears and people involve bears gaining or attempting to gain access to food,” Belant said. “This could include food-contained garbage, seeds placed in bird feeders and dog food. [These] can be easily resolved by appropriate storage techniques and removing seed from feeders if bears are present.”
In addition to the fear of disturbances of agriculture, the public is also concerned with attacks.
“Bear attacks are very unlikely,” Gailey said.
Gailey went on to state that problems typically only occur when the bears start eating things outside of their normal diets. He has been involved with the trapping of 40 bears, and he has never felt that he was in danger during a single trapping.
“The bear is going to be more scared of you than you are of it,” Gailey said.
The majority of Missouri has been without black bears for more than 100 years. Although the bear population is still relatively low, there are many individuals and organizations helping the black bears return to the state. As the population increases the public will need to learn to coexist with the once-native bears. With time and education, bears and humans will be able to share the land Missouri has to offer.