Black Bears are back in Missouri, and University of Missouri biologists say that says good things about Ozark forests.
Black bears that were first reintroduced in Arkansas in the 1950s and 60s have meandered into Missouri, where logging and unregulated hunting wiped out most of the native population. Now, Conservation Department Biologist Jeff Beringer says there are 5 populations in southern Missouri.
“We’ve come up with a reasonable population estimate of around 250 bears … adults … and I suspect we have a slowly growing population but we don’t know yet what their survival or their reproductive rates are, so that’s kind of a guess on my part.”
Beringer says black bears have been known to be back in Missouri for some time, but this and other recent work show that they have established a population.
“The fact that we’re getting more and more females reproducing is making bears more significant. They’ve become less of a, ‘Oh, I saw one,’ to now we know where there are some bears and they have established a home range.”
Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at MU, Lori Eggert, says the return of black bears indicates good things about the forests in southern Missouri.
“The habitat has recovered so a number of our native species have come back including the bear, including the bobcat and other species that had declined at that time that were hunted.”
Eggert says a graduate student began the study, wanting to see if the bears in Missouri now could be traced back through their DNA, after they were nearly wiped out of the state by the 1920s.
“They had pretty much disappeared from both Missouri and Arkansas, but that doesn’t mean that they were completely gone. That means that we weren’t seeing evidence of them at time. Part of what we wanted to look at in that study was whether or not genetics could help us find out whether or not they were actually gone.”
Beringer says the reemergence of black bears shouldn’t mean much for humans who live near their populations.
“From a safety standpoint there are some concerns when it comes to things like if you’re camping or if you live in bear country, it’s going to be in your best interest to try to keep a clean camp or a clean backyard. You don’t want to attract bears to your property.”
Given enough time and population growth, both Eggert and Beringer say it is likely the Conservation Department would institute management programs such as black bear hunts. Beringer says the population will have to double what it is estimated to be at now.
“We set a goal of getting to the point where we have 500 bears. At that point we know we have a healthy population, we know we have reproduction and we can sustain a very regulated, conservative harvest. That could happen in the next decade.”
As for safety concerns, Beringer says if a bear is attacking a person, livestock or pets a person can defend themselves including shooting the bear.
For more information on black bears in Missouri visit the Department’s website, or visit the webpage that is part of the collaboration between the Department and the two Universities, the Missouri Black Bear Project where you can learn more about where bears haev been seen and track their movements.