By Harlee Scherrer
If you are in Missouri or the surrounding area, you have probably heard about the recent sittings of black bears. Most are shocked, some nervous, but in all actuality that particular bear is just a young male looking for his own territory that has made a life of pillaging trash cans and suburban neighborhoods. Taking a look at the Missouri flag its no surprise that bears were once in this state. This great state historically did not look similar to what we know it to be at this present day. Believe it or not but Missouri was once a prime wilderness. There once lay a vast prairie system stretching across most of the northern and central region of the state, expansive woodlands down in the southern mountain ranges, and a variety of other communities mixed in. If you travel down to the Ozark Mountains and through the areas around the St. Francois National Mountain Range you’ll find that some of these natural features still exist, and is where the Black Bears inhabit.
So where did the bears come from? There are 3 different source populations that have contributed to the current number of bears, the Ouachita mountains, Ozark Mountains, and a possible small remnant population. The big kicker is that 2 of the 3 sources are not in Missouri….they are in Arkansas. Known to some as one of the “Greatest Restorations”, Arkansas reintroduced two populations of Black bears between 1958 and 1968 into two sperate ranges the Ouachita and Ozark mountains. Because of the large roaming territories, it was no surprise that bears would soon make their way north into Missouri. Fast forward to 1991, the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) started conducting research using what’s called “Hair snares” to collect samples of hair tuffs. These tuffs allowed them to look into the genetics of each individual hair sample and determine the sex of the bear, as well as link it to a particular source population.
Some of the limiting factors for population growth within Missouri are habitat and a stable food source. The Black Bears are mostly found in southern Missouri in the Ozarks where they have a source of food as well as plenty of open areas free from unnatural barriers such as highways, strands of suburban neighborhoods and development. They also have access to lots of vegetation, which is important because they are primarily herbivores, eating lots of berries and acorns. Data collected from 2010-2012 projects that the population has reached around 300 bears. Since then there has been more work done to look into cub production, survival rates, habitat, and movement. MDC has continued to do great work with monitoring this population and has tried to educate the public on how to live with them. If you go on their website, you can look at some of the bears that have been radio collared and are currently tracking through the state. The biggest concern with most restoration projects is public interest and concern, and with this particular case it is no different. Learning to be “Bear Aware”, as state parks and other agencies have called it, is crucial.
Black bears are not a very dangerous species, like in most scenarios it is important to always be aware of your surrounding and make smart decisions. In the last few years I have spent a large portion of my life in areas deemed as bear territory and have yet to have any encounters. Black bears are not something that should scare you when entering the woods. The biggest tip anyone can give is to Be Bear Aware. So next time you find yourself driving down the road, look out at the landscape and think of what it might have been. Think of what it has become, and remember that we are all neighbors to much more than we know.