Flickr photo by Jethro Taylor https:::flic.kr:p:8aVJs9.jpg

The young, male black bear who became Facebook-famous after dumpster-diving and hanging out on a dock at Lake of the Ozarks has been relocated by conservation officers, hoping to give him a second chance at life in the Ozarks.

Black Bear Swimming In Lake Of The Ozarks

Missouri Department of Conservation Furbearer Biologist Laura Conlee says the bear is likely a yearling who recently lost the comfort and guidance of his mother as part of a natural cycle. Each year, in early summer, young black bears are kicked to the curb at around one-and-a-half years old so mom can breed again. These yearlings still have many life lessons to learn on their own, and unfortunately for this little guy, he stumbled upon dumpsters as a food source. While Conlee says there are plenty of natural food resources in the wild for a young bear, newbies will often go for the easiest meal available. (Who are we to judge, over our fast-food lunches?) The problem is that bears who associate garbage and populated areas with food are more likely to become a danger to humans over time and may need to be removed from the population for everyone's safety. 

Life-Long Learning

Mama Bear In Dumpster Flick photo by Jim Mullhaupt https:::flic.kr:p:gWqovV.jpg

A young whipper-snapper off to a bad start has many years to become increasingly comfortable around humans and increasingly destructive or aggressive while searching for food: black bears in Missouri can live to be 30 years old. In some parts of North America, a bear like this can simply be moved to a remote location where it won’t be tempted by those big blue boxes full of good smells and easy food. But while there is plenty of good bear habitat in Missouri, there are not many areas so remote that a bear would never encounter trash. So, conservationists have learned, if you can’t take the bear away from the garbage, you have to teach the bear that garbage—and people—should be avoided. 

The Bear Guidance Counselor

How does a bear "unlearn" dumpster-diving?  That’s where Damage Biologist (yes, that's a real job title) Josh Wisdom comes into the picture. Think of Josh as the "guidance counselor" for wildlife who are headed down the wrong path. Wisdom gives bears a chance to rediscover their wild roots after they have been hand-fed or have learned that that bird feeders and garbage cans are easier food than foraging for berries and bugs. Damage Biologists' first job is to assess the damage to an animal’s “wildness” and to properly determine the severity of the situation. From there they create a plan for “adverse conditioning,” based on how desensitized the bear is to humans and whether it is likely to be dangerous.

The Un-Training

Black Pbear Dumpster Flickr Photo by Jim Mullhaupt https:::flic.kr:p:omiB7o.jpg

The most common bear issue Lake of the Ozarks residents have is raiding garbage or eating from a bird feeder. In a situation like this, Wisdom removes the food and sets up a not-so-fun surprise party for the bear. Using electronic devices and electric fences designed for cattle, Wisdom rigs up “harassment tools” so when the bear comes sniffing around again, it gets a jolt from the electric fence and is greeted with a loud, unsettling alarm. The goal is to startle the bear without hurting it, so it begins to learn that people are scary and it’s best to stay away. Paintball guns, firecrackers, and rubber bullets can also teach bears to avoid humans. 

Missouri Black Bear Interactions

Black bear interactions by county - Missouri Department of Conservation

Wisdom noted that these bears are not mean or bad animals, they just don’t have a reason to distrust humans. Since bears are not hunted in Missouri (yet... more on the future of Missouri bear hunting here), they have very few reasons to fear humans, but a healthy fear of humans is what allows us to coexist peacefully. The Lake's Facebook-famous little bear was eventually trapped in Eldon, but he must have had a lot of positive experiences around humans, because he turned out to be pretty incorrigible. The day MDC trapped him, Wisdom said the bear had been scared off multiple times but returned rather quickly, indicating he was not too bothered by people. His persistent return to the same place even after being chased off was concerning to Wisdom and meant MDC staff needed to use more than just a loud noise to teach this bear an important life lesson. 

After trapping him, biologists filled the area with people and noises, to help him connect the scary experience of being trapped with the sights and smells of humans. Conservation placed a tag on his ear so they could track his behavior should anyone encounter him again, and they relocated him to a spot within a day's walk for an average bear. But before releasing him, they conducted a test: a garbage bag was placed outside the cage. Unsurprisingly, when the bear was released from the trap, he showed the experience hadn't fazed him. The newly freed bear tore into the garbage, and that's when he was tased. According to Wisdom, the taser has the same effect on a bear that it would on a human: a painful and memorable experience, but without any permanent damage.  

A Fed Bear Is A Dead Bear

For most Missourians, living in bear country is new and a bit unsettling, but preventing them from associating humans and food is the easiest way to avoid bear problems. Conlee says it’s “a lot better to be proactive than reactive.” Residents should avoid leaving pet food, bird feeders, coolers etc. outside. Using bear-proof garbage bins when bears are traveling through your area is the best way to protect bears and your property. It might sound odd, but people can help bears by teaching them that people are not safe.

If you see a bear on your property it might be tempting to go inside and take pictures of it, but Wisdom encourages residents to do the bear a favor: scare it away by clapping, shouting, using an air horn or even lighting firecrackers. (Wouldn't hurt to take a quick photo first, though! And make sure you are in a safe place before alarming the bear.) Wisdom reminds those who feel bad scaring a bear, a naive bear becomes a dead bear, whether hit by a car, shot, or euthanized. 

Resources

Missouri's bear population has continued to grow since the 1960s and the population's current range, which lies south of I-44, is beginning to expand into the Lake of the Ozarks area and into areas southwest of St. Louis. The current Missouri bear population is the result of a small existing population that survived near the southern border as well as reintroduction efforts in Arkansas. 

Bear Sightings In Missouri

Bear Sightings In Missouri - Missouri Department of Conservation

For the most recent research on Missouri’s black bears, check out the latest MDC video on YouTube

MDC also has several websites where you can also find information about the Black Bear Research Project and Results from the Black Bear Research Project

Report a bear sighting online

Here are some links to bear-proof dumpsters and waste receptacles. 

Home Depot - Metal, Animal-Proof Trash Can

Ace Hardware - Toter Black Bear-Tight Trash Can

Garage Organization - Metal Trash Bin Storage Shed

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