First posted on 04-23-2010
“Bear country.” What mental image does that phrase conjure up for you? A fern-choked valley in the Appalachian Mountains? A high meadow in the Rockies? Missourians often forget they could encounter a black bear while camping or hiking in their home state. The rules for camping and hiking in bear country apply in Missouri, too.
The Show-Me State is home to a small but growing black bear population. Female bears with cubs are an increasingly common sight here, and the average size of Missouri bears is increasing as young bears that come north across the Arkansas border and those born here mature.
Bear sightings have been confirmed in more than half of Missouri’s counties, ranging as far north as Lewis County in eastern Missouri and Buchanan County on the west. However, an estimated 90 percent of Missouri’s bear population lives south of Interstate Highway 44. Although the human population of southern Missouri remains relatively sparse in many areas, the likelihood of human-bear encounters increases annually.
Most Missouri bear encounters are brief. Black bears are instinctively afraid of humans and normally flee when they realize people are nearby. However, hunger occasionally overrides this shyness.
“If a bear is hungry enough and smells something that is tempting enough, it may investigate, even if it knows people are around,” said Resource Scientist Jeff Beringer, the Missouri Department of Conservation’s bear specialist. “Gaining access to a human-related food source can break down a bear’s natural fear of people even more, and a bear that gets in the habit of eating from trash cans or camp coolers can lose that fear altogether. At that point, the bear is in mortal danger itself, besides posing a danger to people.”
He said bears that lose their fear of humans sometimes have to be killed. This fact is behind the old saying, “A fed bear is a dead bear.”
Campers can help avoid creating “fed bears” by following the Ten Commandments of Camping with Bears.
I. NEVER FEED BEARS
Not only does feeding bears and other wildlife encourage an unhealthy loss of wildness, it can help spread diseases by concentrating animals around an unnatural food source. Attempts to hand-feed wildlife are even more dangerous.
II. KEEP A CLEAN CAMP
Bears don’t discriminate between food and garbage. They find food scraps and wrappers as enticing as a full meal. Check the area around dog bowls for stray food after feeding.
III. WASH UTENSILS AFTER COOKING
Bears’ keen sense of smell can detect food odors long after cooking is done.
IV. START FOOD PREP AT HOME
Peeling and slicing vegetables, cooking meat and doing other food preparation at home reduces the amount of garbage and smell produced in camp. It also allows more time for outdoor activities.
V. STORE FOOD IN AIRTIGHT CONTAINERS
Rubberized dry bags, jars with tight-sealing lids and sealable plastic bags help minimize tantalizing aromas. Store food in locked vehicles or car trunks at night.
VI. DON’T COOK OR EAT IN TENTS
With people hidden from view, a bear can mistake a tent for a food source.
VII. KEEP GARBAGE SEALED UP
Double bag refuse and lock it in a car trunk or airtight container.
VIII. TREAT SCENTED ITEMS LIKE FOOD
Soap, cosmetics and other scented items don’t smell like food to you, but they do to a bear.
IX. NEVER APPROACH BEARS
Wild animals are unpredictable and can be dangerous when brought into unnatural contact with people. Don’t put yourself and them at risk by trying to create a Disney moment.
X. KEEP DOGS LEASHED
Bears normally flee when they encounter people, but if cornered by a dog they will defend themselves.
If a bear enters your campsite, shout, wave your arms and use an air horn or bang pots and pans to make noise. Throw rocks and sticks at the bear. If it does not leave, get in a vehicle or building and make noise by honking the vehicle’s horn, banging pots and pans or shouting. If the bear does not leave, call your conservation agent or local law-enforcement agency.
Beringer asks Missourians who see bears to report the sightings to him or to Liz Forbes by calling 573-882-9880. He recommended using the bear reporting form at http://www.mdc.mo.gov/18427 to ensure that all the important facts are included. For more information about living with bears, visit mdc.mo.gov/landown/wild/nuisance/bear/info/.
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