Fall in the Ozarks means getting ready to sleep for seven months — if you are a bear, that is. After a summer of steady weight gain, Missouri’s black bears retreat to their dens to enjoy a deep sleep. If conservationists are lucky, the bears might even emerge with a few cubs in the spring.
Bears are native to Missouri, but the population has declined over the years due to human population growth and unrestricted hunting. Fewer and fewer bear sightings were reported, and conservations began to realize the problem starting in the late 1950s. Since then, repopulated bears in Arkansas have managed to spread into Missouri, with sightings increasing in the 1980s. In 2010, the Missouri Department of Conservation started to research bear numbers, an effort that terrestrial research assistant Courtney Nicks has been a part of.
“We started collaring bears in 2010, and that was basically just to get an idea of how many bears we have on the landscape,” Nicks said. “In 2012, we kind of switched gears and started sparking the project we’re working on now.”
MDC’s current project is focused on the bears’ reproduction and how well the cubs are surviving. Currently, the program has roughly 30 collared female bears, which are tracked to determine when they first reproduce. Nicks believes that tracking the bears will allow the department to figure out goals for the population.
“It’s basically a very integral part of knowing how fast that population is growing,” Nicks said. “So we want to reach that 500-bear capacity before we start initiating any start of hunting season. Then we want to know hypothetically how fast we’re going to reach that 500.”
Getting a tracking collar on a 240-pound bear and its cubs takes a team of researchers and a lot of expertise. First, a researcher has to trap the bear in a way that contains it but minimizes harm, which is a process that sometimes includes doughnuts. Tim James, a wildlife management biologist at MDC, has had several opportunities to tag along with research teams and witness doughnut baiting.
“The first time we went down we were using doughnut as bait, you know my wife texted me ‘what do bears smell like’ and I replied back ‘doughnuts,’” James said. “They just start fighting and rolling in those doughnuts and we call those jelly bears.”
The bear is then tranquilized and a blindfold is placed over its face to prevent trauma. Female bears have a tooth extracted to measure age, and researchers take notes on the size of the bear and its overall condition. Lastly, a collar is placed on the bear and it is moved to a safe location until it is able to walk again.
Researchers do occasionally run into issues when capturing the bears, including a run-in James had while watching researchers release cubs in southern Missouri.
“We pull up and hear it [the cub], it sounded like a goat out there,” James said. “All of the sudden, momma comes out of the woods and that’s when it got exciting, she was pretty angry. I’m looking around at all these other guys like ‘I can outrun you, you and you and so I’m good.’”
James also notes that black bears are rarely aggressive unless they sense that their cubs are in danger or they are being threatened. What is more of a threat, according to Nicks, is the human influence in bear country.
“I think one of the take home for black bears is that black bears are food driven, kind of like feeding a dog at the dinner table,” Nicks said. “A fed bear is a dead bear, and that’s the message, to eliminate any type of feeding for that bear.”
Nicks recommends keeping dog food and garbage contained rather than out in the open, and eliminating food that might attract bears. Bears that continually venture into more populated areas put homeowners at risk and also increase the chance of the bear being hit by a car.
People living in bear country can help keep themselves and bears safe by reporting any bears they see to give the MDC a better grasp on where bears are.
“People are our eyes and ears in Missouri,” Nicks said. “Any time a black bear sighting is reported it goes down in our databases, and you can actually look up the live map online and see the black bear sightings.”
The more people that report bears, the more accurate MDC’s numbers and live map. However, residents of Missouri are not all aware of the state’s bear population. Leslie Ramirez, a freshman business major at the University of Missouri and a Columbia, Missouri, resident, said she had never heard of black bears in the state. Although Ramirez hadn’t previously heard of bears in Missouri, after learning about the MDC’s efforts she believes bears should be protected.
“I really had no idea,” Ramirez said. “I’m not sure if Missouri has anything in place as of now against hunting, but I think bears should be protected.”
Currently, the MDC is looking to grow the black bear population using research to measure progress. Nicks and other conservationists are working to grow the black bear population so they remain included in Missouri’s southern habitat.
“I think the bear population is a really good indicator of what our ecosystem is like, that there’s still wild areas that can sustain a black bear population,” Nicks said. “I think it’s important for us to know that we do have these areas that are very beneficial not only for black bears but for other animals we have in the landscape.”
With the combined efforts of citizens and the MDC, the department hopes that bears will remain a permanent fixture in Missouri.