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Black Bear Hunting In Missouri? It Could Happen, Conservation Department Says

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Black bears are longtime residents of Missouri, and while their numbers were nearly eliminated in the 20th century, they've recently been making a comeback. The last population census in 2012 estimated the Missouri black bear population to be around 350, most of whom live south of Interstate 44. As the number of bears in the state approaches 500, the Missouri Department of Conservation says they've been weighing a bear hunting season.

That doesn't necessarily mean bears will be hunted soon. The MDC Commission, knowing the bear population was growing but still having a lot of questions about them, decided several years ago to set a population size at which they would begin evaluating the population for hunting.

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Collared Missouri Black Bear

Missouri Black Bear with a tracking collar and identifying ear tags. Photo credit: Laura Conlee, Missouri Department of Conservation Trail Camera.

MDC furbearer research biologist Laura Conlee says that’s when they chose the benchmark number of 500. When data indicates the population is at 500, MDC will begin evaluating whether hunting is a sustainable option for the population.  

So, when could Missouri see a black bear hunting season begin? That's anyone’s guess.

”We know the population is growing, but we really want to know how quickly it’s growing,” Conlee said. She and Jerrold Belant are the lead researchers on the Black Bear Project at MDC, working to assess that very thing.

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Missouri Department of Conservation Black Bear Research

Missouri Department of Conservation Black Bear Researchers measuring a black bear cub's paw. Researchers weigh the cubs, take body measurements, determine sex and tag them with small tags microchips like the ones used on dogs and cats. Photo credit: Laura Conlee, Missouri Department of Conservation

Currently they are measuring the average number of cubs females are giving birth to, and the survival rate of the cubs. This translates into watching moms and newborn cubs in their dens through a combination of hands-on work and trail cameras. For those of us who don’t get to see the inside of a hibernating bear den, these trail cam photos are unique glimpses into a private "momma bear" world, and they have turned out surprisingly well. One photo revealed a rare phenomenon: a blonde black bear.

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Blonde Black Bear

Missouri blonde black bear. Photo credit: Laura Conlee, Missouri Department of Conservation Trail Camera.

Conlee says the blonde color is rare, but not unheard-of. More often, blonde bears are a cinnamon color that tends to get darker as they get older. But the bear caught on the MDC's camera is much lighter than many variations she has seen through her work in Missouri and Massachusetts.  

Now, for many, our knowledge of bear hunting is probably contained to the classic video game Oregon Trail. But in reality, black bears are a viable animal to hunt for meat, fur, and fat for cooking.

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Bear Hunting in The Oregon Trail

Hunting can also “be an important population management tool for human tolerance and habitat availability,” Conlee explained. If black bear reproduction and survival rates outpace the habitat available for them, we are more likely to see nuisance bears, or bears getting hit by cars—like the one this summer at Lake of the Ozarks. Making sure the population is sustainable, meaning their natural habitat can provide the necessary den sites and food sources away from humans, is one crucial aspect of managing a healthy population. Hunting can help us maintain that balance, if a species is reproducing too quickly for their environment to support them.

Are Black Bears Dangerous?

Conlee is often asked if black bears are dangerous. Her answer? “They are a wild animal. Always have a healthy respect for them. Appreciating them from a distance keeps you and them safe.” Learning to be “Bear Aware” is the best thing you can do to protect yourself and them. While they prefer to eat fruits and nuts, like acorns, black bears are eclectic eaters: that means whatever they come across may be the next meal. In that respect, Conlee says they’re kind of like gigantic raccoons and can learn bad habits. Just like people, bears are attracted to "fast food," but in their world this means bird feeders, cooking grills, and garbage cans. Once bears learn to be attracted to human-associated foods, it increases the chance of a human/bear encounter or problem. 

Conlee says right now is a great time for residents at Lake of the Ozarks to learn how to be Bear Aware, because we live on the edge of bear territory.  Researchers expect to see more bears moving into the area. The area also has a number of homes in forested areas that could become fast food targets for black bears. Here’s what you need to know to stay safe and keep bears safe:

 Bear Safety Tips

 1) Make sure your home isn’t their favorite fast-food joint 

  • Never intentionally feed a bear

  • Avoid unintentionally feeding bears by not leaving food out, including pet food

  • Avoid using bird feeders from April to October. MDC says, “If you must, hang them at least 10 feet high and 4 feet away from any structure.”

  • Keep grills stored inside 

  • Keep garbage and recycling stored inside or in a bear-proof container

  • Keep food compost in a bear-proof container

  • Use electric fencing to deter them from chicken coops, bee hives, vegetable gardens etc…

  • If you need help keeping a bear away, contact your Missouri Department of Conservation Regional Agent and they can help you https://mdc.mo.gov/regional-contacts

  • Be especially careful in early spring and summer when their natural food sources are harder to find and they are more likely to scavenge

2) If you or your family crosses a bear, here is how to handle the situation safely:

  • Do not approach it - give it an escape route

  • Back away with your arms raised, stay facing the bear

  • Speak calmly and loudly. Here's a lesson from a Canadian who has clearly encountered this situation before. 

  • Don’t turn your back to the bear

  • Walk away slowly, never run

More Research on the Missouri Black Bear

Researchers are also looking at how the bears move around their habitat. MDC researchers typically have 20-30 bears with tracking collars on each year. They can monitor each bear’s location and movement. Range expansion for black bears in Missouri relies on the bears being able to travel within safe corridors. They typically move within forested areas that provide food and cover as they travel. This can even be a small block of forest that connects two larger areas, or a river. Crossing roads—especially at night—can be dangerous for bears, so finding safe pathways is a critical component to expanding their range. We reported on two bears in the Lake of the Ozarks area last summer, and Conlee said this reflects what her team is seeing in the bears the MDC is tracking: more bears are moving north of the I-44 line.

The Missouri Department of Conservation black bear research project is expected to continue through 2020. You can stay up-to-date on their research, ongoing project updates, bear research photos and videos, and the future story maps at http://bit.ly/2CUgZiE. To view the new map of bear reports in Missouri or to report a bear sighting, visit http://bit.ly/2CGFixc. For information about being bear aware while hiking or camping, visit http://bit.ly/2fwaWUA.

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(Cover photo via Flickr, by Valerie -- CC 2.0 License)

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