Earlier this week, a bear was sighted in Warren County, which was the latest in the St. Louis area in just a few weeks.
The Missourian spoke with Dan Zarlenga with the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) to get some information on why the bears are moving this direction and where they would most likely be spotted in Franklin County.
He says black bears are what’s being spotted near St. Louis and they are looking for what all living things want — food.
“Our studies estimate about 350 bears live in the state and the vast majority reside south of the Interstate 44 border,” Zarlenga said. “However, we also see this population expanding slowly, both in total numbers and geographically (as in northward). Most likely this uptick in sightings recently is an early manifestation of that expansion.”
It’s not unusual for bears to roam hundreds of miles for a variety of reasons, he said, including looking for food or mates.
Older males may chase younger males out of their territories, putting the younger bears on the move. They are especially mobile in spring and early summer, after exiting winter hibernation and needing to stock up on food and energy again.
“We feel it’s reasonable to expect sightings will increase as time goes by and this expansion continues,” Zarlenga said. “At this point bears will most likely move on after getting what they want — or not getting it. It’s important for residents to not give bears an incentive to stick around.”
Zarlenga stressed the new sightings of black bears is actually a resurgence of former populations killed out by humans.
“First, we must remember that bears are not new to Missouri’s landscape,” Zarlenga said. “They were here in significant numbers historically, until human efforts nearly or completely wiped them out of the state. The state of Arkansas began a reintroduction program using bears brought from Manitoba, Canada, in the 1950s. Bears from that reintroduction have grown naturally and expanded northward into Missouri, as our state provides excellent habitat for their needs.”
He added the population is growing slowly, and he would not classify it as an explosion.
“The population, currently estimated at around 350, appears to be growing gradually, but not exploding,” Zarlenga said. “Once the population reaches a certain threshold of sustainability, which may be around 500, the MDC will consider opening a limited black bear hunting season. We see hunting as the best way to keep the bear population at a sustainable and healthy level.”
He added since bears were indigenous to this state historically, they are not classed as an invasive species and currently there is no concern about their presence having an adverse effect on other species.
Since Franklin County is at the tip of the Ozarks, which is prime bear habitat with plenty of wooded areas and food supply, bear sightings here would most likely be in rural locations, but they could be anywhere.
“The more rural and wooded areas with lower human populations are where people are most likely to spot bears,” Zarlenga said. “However, as we have recently seen, it is not unheard of for them to appear in more populated areas like subdivisions.”
Bears are omnivores and opportunists, and will pursue a great variety of foods and they have a highly keen sense of smell to locate food. This includes grass, berries and other fruits, various seeds and nuts, the inner bark of trees and roots.
Animal food includes ants, bees and their honey, crickets and grasshoppers, fish, frogs, small rodents, fawns, bird eggs, and many kinds of carrion.
Acorns are an important food source in the fall as bears prepare for winter.
“Feeding bears is helpful to them. Wrong!,” Zarlenga said. “Feeding bears only serves to habituate them to humans, cause them to be expectant of and aggressive for food, and can result in anything from property damage, threat to humans, to euthanizing of the bear.”
As the saying goes, “A fed bear is a dead bear.”
In addition to not feeding bears, Zarlenga cleared up a few other myths like taking away bird feeders to discourage bears is bad for the birds.
There is usually plenty of food for birds during spring, summer and fall from natural sources.
Bird feeders are more for our benefit this time of year, so birds will come to us for viewing.
Some people associate bears as being man-eaters, especially with stories of grizzly and polar bear attacks up north — but this is not the case with black bears in Missouri.
“They are mostly reclusive and tend to avoid people,” Zarlenga said. “As seen above, humans are much too large to be part of their regular diet. “However, aggressive behavior can manifest itself if people feed bears, or threaten them or their cubs. That being said, precautions should be taken regarding small pets.”
The MDC wants to keep human attractors to a minimum to reduce the likelihood of negative human-bear encounters.
“Don’t leave pet food outdoors, remove bird feeders, clean grills or bring them into closed garages or sheds, don’t put out garbage until the morning of pickup,” Zarlenga said.
Most wildlife tends to be more active around dusk or right after dawn, but this is by no means a set and absolute rule.
“Other than an occasional small animal or eggs a bear may prey on, we do not see them as a significant threat to other Missouri wildlife,” Zarlenga said. “Again, bears existed on this landscape long before European settlement, so they and this environment have long since evolved to coexist together.”
If bears are not fed, provoked, cornered or threatened, danger to humans is generally very minimal, he said.
The MDC gives these suggestions if residents do encounter a bear.
If you see a bear, leave it alone. Do not approach it.
If you encounter a bear up close:
• Never corner a bear and make sure it has an escape route.
• Back away slowly with your arms raised.
• Speak in a calm, loud voice.
• Do not turn your back to the bear.
• Walk away slowly and do not run.