The Bears Came Over The Mountains

By Jim Low, Missouri Dept. of Conservation

First posted on 02-27-2009

Show-Me State hunters see them. So do anglers and campers. Most encounters are fleeting, leaving surprised outdoors people wondering how a black bear got into Missouri. The answer is “over the mountains.”

Resource Scientist Jeff Beringer is the Missouri Department of Conservation’s expert on furbearing mammals, including black bears. He said the Show-Me State’s native bear population probably was gone by the early 20th century.

“It is possible that a few survived in remote pockets of the Ozark Mountains,” said Beringer, “but they had a lot working against them. They got hit with a double whammy of unregulated hunting and large-scale deforestation. It seems more likely that the bear population we have today came from Arkansas.”

Black bears did survive in the 160,000-acre White River National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Arkansas – once known as “The Bear State.” By the middle of the 20th century, however, the refuge and other areas in southeastern Arkansas harbored so few native bears that the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission imported bears from Minnesota and Manitoba for a bear restoration effort in other parts of the state.

The agency released 254 black bears in the Ouachita Mountains of western Arkansas and in the Ozark Mountains of northwestern Arkansas between 1958 and 1968. Today the Game and Fish Commission estimates Arkansas’ black bear population at 3,000. Hunters harvested a record 400 bears in Arkansas’ 2007 hunting season.

Beringer said black bears may need up to 30 square miles of habitat per individual. These home ranges often overlap. Females with adjoining ranges generally are related. Males, on the other hand make long “dispersal moves” at about 1.5 years of age to establish territories among unrelated animals.

That, said Beringer, is how Missouri got many of its male bears. Females in an established bear population generally do not make long moves. However, Missouri probably received a few females from the initial Arkansas release, as these animals traveled widely before settling down into home ranges.

Bears’ secretive nature makes estimating the Show-Me State’s black bear population difficult. Beringer said the best estimate is a few hundred. Although bears have been seen as far north as Marion County, near Hannibal, most of the state’s bears live south of I-44. Counties with the most sightings include Carter, Ripley, Reynolds, Howell, Ozark, Barry, Taney, Christian, Stone and Douglas.

Unlike mountain lions, which have only been documented as individual animals in Missouri, black bears clearly are reproducing and rearing their young here. A recent incident in Christian County provides the latest proof.

Wildlife Regional Supervisor Tim Russell reports that a man on horseback came upon a female bear with two yearling cubs while riding at Busiek State Forest and Wildlife Area Feb. 6. The bears fled, but the encounter spooked horse, which threw its rider to the ground.

“The gentleman was a little banged up from his fall, but otherwise he seemed okay,” said Russell. “Since there were bears in the area, we advised campers in the area to keep their food in their vehicles. That is as much for the bears’ protection as for people’s.”

The bears were seen again at Busiek Feb. 7, but they have not been reported since. Beringer said their disappearance was predictable.

“Bears are very mobile, and they are sensitive to human disturbance,” he said. “Chances are good that those three bears moved somewhere with less chance of running into people.”

The Christian County incident illustrates that bear sightings can occur in any season. The frequency of bear reports in Missouri decreases in winter, when the animals are less active. However, Missouri’s climate may limit the time in which bears are dormant. Bears without newborn cubs here may hole up in hollow trees, brushy depressions or other sheltered areas for days or weeks at a time, but these periods of inactivity will vary with weather and food availability.

So, in a real-life version of the old song, “The Bear Went Over the Mountain,” Arkansas bears have come to Missouri “to see what they could see.” Some have seen much more than the other side of the mountain. Young, inexperienced bears that might never have seen a human encounter interstate highways, campgrounds, houses and towns. Not knowing any better, they sometimes mistake trash cans, bird feeders and livestock feed as great sources of food.

Beringer encourages Missourians who see bears to report the sightings to the nearest Conservation Department office. He said people should never feed bears intentionally, and those in areas where bears are known to live should take measures to avoid tempting bears.

“Bears that come to associate people with food and lose their fear of humans are dangerous to themselves as well as people,” he said. “The great majority of Missouri’s bears never get in any trouble, but those that do almost always get started by being fed.”

Missourians can avoid tempting bears by keeping pet food and other foodstuffs where bears can’t reach them. Some items that most people would not consider potential bear food – such as bird seed – can be targets of bear foraging.

If you must feed pets 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.

– 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 camp 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.

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. “We take bear problems very seriously, and we respond as quickly as possible when conflicts arise. We want to help people solve problems quickly and in the best possible way.”

He said Missourians can call any Conservation Department office or law enforcement agency to get help with problem bears.