First posted on 06-16-2008
Connie Roberts was returning to her home in Brandsville from a fishing trip around 9:30 p.m. April 20 when a 300-pound black bear dashed out in front of her Chevy Blazer. In the time it took to shout “bear!” metal and muscle collided, with fatal results for the bear.
Conservation agents had to be called in, on June 1, when a young bear climbed up a tree and created a traffic jam on Highway 25 near the town of Advance in Stoddard County.
The appearance of bears across the southern half of Missouri each spring is as predictable as the appearance of leaves on trees. Most human-bear encounters are fleeting and uneventful. However, such encounters can be frightening for people and for bears. Knowing how to avoid encounters with bears and how to act when you do see one are the keys to keeping people and bears safe.
The Missouri Department of Conservation says the state has an undetermined number of black bears. The animals’ shy nature makes bear sightings relatively rare. Still, the agency receives roughly 200 reports each year.
The number of bear reports begins to climb in April and peaks between mid-May and mid-June. Conservation Department Furbearer Biologist Jeff Beringer says a little knowledge goes a long way toward preventing such encounters from leading to serious trouble.
“Spring through early summer is a tough time for bears,” said Beringer. “Bear food is scarce, and they get really hungry. Black bears-the only kind we have in Missouri-are naturally shy. They are afraid of people. Natural shyness protects both bears and people. We want to preserve that as much as possible. Bears that lose their fear of people are likely to get in trouble.”
When bears do get in trouble with people, it usually is because of food-or a bear’s idea of food. Pet food, livestock feed, bird seed or campers’ groceries all can overwhelm otherwise wary bears’ shyness in early summer, when natural foods are still in short supply.
Compounding the problem is the fact that female bears with two-year-old cubs chase away their offspring at this time of the year in order to mate again. Young, inexperienced bears may resort to food sources that older bears would avoid.
Young male bears move miles from their mothers’ home ranges in search of territory of their own. Many bears seen in Missouri at this time of year are young males dispersing from Arkansas, where bears are more numerous.
“Most people are more excited than scared when they see a bear in their backyard,” said Beringer. “That is understandable, but it is important to remember that bears are wild animals and they are unpredictable. You also have to consider what lessons a bear is learning while rummaging around in your garbage. Unless curious bears are discouraged right away, they can develop unhealthy habits. By the time people’s excitement wears off, the bear’s natural fear of humans may have decreased to the point where the animal is dangerous to property or even to people. At that point, the bear is in danger itself.”
Beringer said in the past most of Missouri’s bear problems occurred in Iron, Shannon, Carter, Ripley, Reynolds, Howell, Ozark, Barry, Taney, Christian, Stone and Douglas counties. Ozark County is the epicenter of bear activity in Missouri, with 100 reports since 1987. The next-most-active counties were Taney and Carter, with 47 each, while Reynolds and Howell counties were close behind, with 44 and 43 sightings, respectively.
In recent years, the Conservation Department has been receiving more reports of bears north of I-44. Marion County in northeastern Missouri has the distinction of being the most northerly county with bear sightings.
Beringer urges people who live in areas where bears have been seen to keep pet food and other foodstuffs where bears can’t reach them. Even bird feeders can be targets of bear foraging.
If bears are known to frequent your area, it is a good idea to clean up seed residues beneath feeders and stop feeding birds during the summer. An alternative is to bring feeders inside at night.
It also is wise to keep pet and livestock food out of bears’ reach. Feed dogs and cats indoors. If you must feed them outdoors, clean up spilled food and place feeding bowls inside after each meal. Store pet food in airtight containers in locked storage areas.
Other helpful tips include:—Clean up outdoor grills after each use and store them in sheds.—Put garbage out the morning of collection.—Double bag garbage.—Pour half a cup of ammonia in trash bags.—Don’t place meat or sweet food scraps in your compost pile.—Never cook, eat or store food in tents or sleeping areas when camping.—Keep food locked inside vehicles when not in use. If a bear enters your campsite, get inside your vehicle and stay there until the bear leaves.—Never intentionally feed bears.
Attacks by black bears are rare. Most occur because the animal is frightened or is defending cubs against a perceived threat. Black bears are excellent climbers, so trees offer little refuge.
Beringer recommends talking, whistling or attaching a small bell to clothing or pack to avoid startling bears while hiking or fishing. If you encounter a bear and it has not seen you, leave the area quietly and quickly.
If the bear is aware of your presence, avoid making eye contact, which bears perceive as a threat. Back away while speaking in a normal tone of voice. Don’t run or make sudden movements.
Bears’ poor vision sometimes makes it difficult for them to identify humans, even at close range. In such situations, bears may stand on their hind legs and lift their noses high in the air. This is not a threat. The bear is just trying to use its keen sense of smell to find out what you are.
Avoid making a bear feel cornered. Black bears seldom attack if they can retreat. On a trail, step off the trail on the downhill side and slowly leave the area.
If you see a cub, move slowly and calmly away from it. Be on the lookout for other cubs, and avoid getting near them, which could trigger an adult bear’s’ protective instincts.
In the event of an attack, fight back. Black bears have been driven away when people fought back with rocks, sticks, even bare hands.
Shouting, banging pots and pans or making other loud noises almost always will frighten a bear away. If these measures fail, call a conservation agent or the nearest Conservation Department office.
Bears are protected by the Wildlife Code of Missouri, and it is illegal to kill one unless it is threatening people or property.
“The Conservation Department has people trained to deal with bear problems of all kinds,” said Beringer. “Bears are an exciting and important part of Missouri’s wildlife, and when conflicts arise, we want to help people resolve them in the best possible way.”
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