Black bears gaining ground in Barry County
MDC: Bears remember where they get food
Due to black bears increasing in number in southern Missouri, including Barry and nearby counties, as evidenced by increased sightings and motor-vehicle reports, it may be time to heed the Missouri Department of Conservation's catch-phrase, "Be Bear Aware."
Although the bears are native to Missouri, by 1931, their numbers were almost decimated due to human settlement. After Arkansas began reintroducing black bears in 1958, they began making a comeback, and with Barry County right on its border, bears are paying locals visits while out searching for food.
“The population is flourishing here,” said Barry County Conservation Agent Daniel Shores. “We have a good habitat for bears in Barry County. It’s super remote where they’re not going to have as much human interaction. There are some around Seligman, too, around Sugar Camp Tower Road area.”
In June, Cassville residents Sid and Mary Allsbury, who live less than two miles from Roaring River State Park, saw a young bear standing near their back door. Eight years previous, the family spotted a bear that stood over five feet tall, and in recent years, bears were reported to have raided local bee hives.
“We're having a lot of sightings of them,” Shores said. “Most of the calls I get are that a bear crossed the highway. We have an abundance of bear population in the Piney Creek Wilderness near Shell Knob. They like secluded, heavily wooded areas.
“There has been a black bear spotted around the Roaring River [area]. It hasn't caused too much trouble, but people need to live up to the Department motto by being bear aware. We don't want to feed them, so campers need to put their food away, because we don't want bears to associate people with food, because once a bear gets a free meal, he's going to come back the next night and the next.”
In fact, the MDC states on its website that bears are capable of remembering, from year-to-year, the location of reliable food sources. Therefore, they advise taking the following precautions, and remind residents that bears may be timid, but are wild and unpredictable animals and may become aggressive if abused or provoked.
• Never feed bears or provide supplemental food, which makes them lose their fear of people, makes them dangerous, and can result in the bear being destroyed. A fed bear is a dead bear.
• Don’t leave pet food sitting outside.
• Use electric fencing to keep bears from beehives, chicken coops, vegetable gardens or other food sources.
• Store garbage, recyclables and compost inside a building or in a bear-proof container trash pick-up.
• Keep campsites clean and free of food odor, wash cookware and remove garbage daily. Do not burn garbage or leave in the camp overnight.
• Pack food in containers and place in your car or other secure place
• When backpacking, place food in plastic or burlap bags and suspend over tree limbs at least five feet from the nearest tree trunk and at least 12 feet above the ground each night.
• Avoid placing beehives near wooded, overgrown locations; locate hives close together because they are easier to protect.
Bears can adapt to changes in habitat or food sources, and have been spotted in surburban locations, too, where they may overcome their fear of humans when they discover bird feeders or a supply of pet food. Most nuisance bears in Missouri are yearling males that have been driven away by their mother and are out looking for food.
“There was one spotted in the middle of Monett running around Jack Henry, and one in Lebanon,” Shores said. “Those are usually juvenile males out exploring.”
In 2010, the MDC started the statewide Black Bear Project, tracking approximately one-third of their population through GPS tracking collars.
With populations increasing, Shores said a group of conservation biologists have begun tracking the bears’ movements in the southern counties.
“Usually in winter, they'll collar females and see where they're having their cubs,” he said. “Everyone thinks that a bear hibernates or has its cubs in a cave in the middle of nowhere. But what has been found from studies is that a lot of bears are making their dens in brushpiles or where two or three trees have fallen together.”
Cubs are born in late January or February, and bears leave their dens in early spring hungry in search of food at a time when natural foods are scarce. New cubs stay with the mother through the summer, while family groups break up and breeding season begins.
Shores said the increasing bear population is not cause for alarm, but residents should be alert.
“I refer to them as an oversized raccoon,” he said. “They are just looking for an easy meal. They do not want human interaction. A black bear’s primary defense is to clap its jaws together which makes a slapping sound. People have had interactions where the bear will stand up on their back feet. We associate that with [a sign of aggression] in movies but a black bear just does that to see better. The only thing people need to be cautious of is a sow with cubs - she will be more aggressive.”
Shores recommended taking the following precautions:
• If walking in bear country, make noise so you don’t surprise a bear.
• If you see a bear, don’t approach it. Yell, clap your hands, wave your arms, back away slowly. Speak in a calm, loud voice.
• Do not turn your back to the bear, and do not run.
• Never corner a bear, make sure it has an escape route.
“We've never had a black bear attack a person in Missouri that I’m aware of," Shores said. "They’re pretty docile. They can get up to 300 pounds, yet they live off berries, bark, bugs and grubs.”
To camp safely in bear country, or follow the Black Bear Project and see where bears are going, visit http://mdc7.mdc.mo/gov/applications/blackbears/. To report bear sightings, visit missouriconservation.org, or contact local conservation agent Daniel Shores at 417-847-5949.