Conservation officials renew call to be ‘Bear Aware’
State conservation officials are renewing their call for residents to be “Bear Aware” as the number of bear sightings has increased.
“Bear numbers are growing, and sightings are becoming increasingly more common in areas of the state that have not seen bears for many years,” explained Laura Conlee, the State Furbearer biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation.
Officials say the number of black bears in the state could be as high as 840 animals, with numbers increasing by nearly 9 percent each year.
Conlee said an increased number of sightings has garnered interest people have for black bears in the state, especially south of the Missouri River and Interstate 44.
“So far in 2020, we’ve already received nearly 250 bear reports with multiple reports coming from areas around Lake of the Ozarks and along I-44,” she said.
An adult male black bear that attracted public attention earlier this year is an example of how far bears can travel and how many people are interested in them. The bear is suspected to have traveled from Wisconsin, through Illinois, and into Missouri in early July. It swam the Mississippi River from Illinois and entered the Show-Me State near Elsberry before making its way into St. Charles County near Wentzville. There, it found itself stuck between major highways just north of I-70 and near I-40/61 with a gathering of hundreds of people watching it nearby.
Conservation-department staff members found and immobilized the bear, placed tags in its ears, transported it to a nearby area of suitable bear habitat outside the very busy urban corridor, and released it unharmed. While MDC has not actively tracked the location of this bear, photos submitted by the public suggest that the bear has moved south through the Missouri Ozarks.
While this bear’s movements are not normal for an adult bear, Conlee noted that bears, especially young dispersing males, can travel long distances — including into places they may not be welcome.
‘Bear Aware’ protects bears
With an increased number of bears being sighted, MDC officials are renewing their call for residents to be “Bear Aware.” The annual campaign is designed to reduce encounters to keep both humans — and especially bears — safe.
One of the best ways to avoid bear encounters is to limit or remove food and other items that attract bears to human-occupied properties, such as bird feeders, trash, barbeque grills, pet food, and food waste. Conservation officials advise homeowners to remove or properly store these types of items to avoid attracting bears.
Bears spend most of their time searching for food and are especially attracted to easy meals — including those provided by people.
Officials also noted that humans should never approach or feed a bear. Intentionally feeding bears can be dangerous, because it makes the bears comfortable around people. It can also lead bears to cause significant damage to property while searching for a meal.
“When bears lose their fear of humans, they could approach people in search of food or may defend the food sources or territory they associate with food provided by people, which can make them dangerous,” Conlee said. “When this happens, the bear cannot be relocated and has to be destroyed. A fed bear is a dead bear.”
How you can help
Experts with the conservation department offer the following tips to avoid attracting black bears to possible food sources:
— Store garbage, recyclables and compost inside a secure building or in a bear-proof container until trash pick-up day.
— Keep grills and smokers clean and store them inside.
— Don’t leave pet food outside. Feed pets a portion at each meal and remove the empty containers.
— Refrain from using bird feeders in bear country from April through November. If in use, hang them at least 10 feet high and 4 feet away from any structure. Keep in mind that even if a bear cannot get to the birdseed, the scent could still attract it to the area.
— Use electric fencing to keep bears away from beehives, chicken coops, vegetable gardens, orchards and other potential food sources.
— Keep campsites clean, and store all food, toiletries and trash in a secure vehicle or strung high between two trees. Do not keep food or toiletries in a tent, and do not burn or bury garbage or food waste.
— Report bear sightings online to mdc.mo.gov/reportbears.
While black bears are generally shy and non-aggressive, MDC officials emphasize that people need to leave bears alone and make sure the bear has an escape route if encountered.
“Be aware of your surroundings,” Conlee said. “If there is evidence of a bear in the area, such as tracks or scat, avoid the area. While out in bear country, make noises, such as clapping, singing or talking loudly to prevent surprising a bear. Travel in a group if possible and keep dogs leashed.”
For more information about Missouri black bears, visit the MDC website at mdc.mo.gov/bearaware.