Black bears and nine-banded armadillos don’t have a whole lot in common except that both are making more frequent appearances in Missouri, especially in the southern half of the state.
Those unfamiliar with the area or who have moved away and come back are often surprised at finding the small burrowing armadillos, most often associated with states farther south.
Despite their increasing prevalence, armadillos are not closely monitored by the Missouri Department of Conservation, though the bear population is tracked annually.
Laura Conlee, a furbearer and black bear biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation, said the black bear population is growing an estimated 9 percent annually statewide and is estimated to double in approximately 10 years.
Conlee said there are currently around 800 bears in the state, the bulk of which make their home in the southern third — below Interstate 44.
Black bears live in low densities, meaning they don’t share their area of habitation with many other bears, and they can rove over a wide area.
That latter point was evidenced last summer when the bear “Bruno” became a social media sensation on his travel south from Wisconsin to Missouri.
Conlee said the most important thing for people to do when living in an area where bears might be around is to not present a food source for the bear as bears are opportunistic feeders.
This can be accomplished by eliminating curbside pickup for trash, not putting out a bird feeder between the months of March and November when the bears are active and, for beekeepers and chicken farms, utilizing electric fencing.
“If there is any evidence of a bear getting into a bird feeder, you should remove that food source right off the bat,” Conlee said. “(Bears) will pull down the shepherd’s hook. They can do a lot of damage to the bird feeder itself. Trash management, bird feeders, pet food that’s left outside — all of those things are really the primary attractants for bears coming into more residential areas. But if anybody has bees or chickens, it’s a really good idea to consider electric fencing — especially bees. That is a very good proactive tool to keep a bear from getting into your hives.”
Bears also are known to dig up wasp nests, tear into old logs and overturn large rocks to get at the insects hiding underneath. They also will dine on acorns, which is one of their fall diet staples.
In the event of a sighting, make sure the bear always has an escape route and does not feel cornered.
“If a bear runs up a tree, it does so because it feels uncomfortable about the situation,” Conlee said. “We’ve seen that in bears that wind up in suburban areas. There is a lot of traffic, a lot of human activity. They get uncomfortable and go up a tree. When those bears are up the tree, that is not an opportunity for everyone to go and see it. It’s not an opportunity for photos, as tempting as it might be. The best thing you can do is just leave the area, and the bear will come down when it feels comfortable doing so.”
Although the population has grown, and bear sightings are on the rise, the sightings are still infrequent. The conservation department reported just six to 10 black bear sightings in Franklin County in 2020.
“Throughout forested parts of the Ozarks, we have bears expanding into more areas,” Conlee said. “When we talk about Franklin County, we are definitely seeing an increase of bear reports in that area. When you look at that habitat around there, there is a lot of forested habitat that connects the southern part of the state to those areas near and adjacent to the Missouri River. That habitat availability facilitates bears moving into those areas.”
Similar numbers of sightings were reported in Crawford and St. Louis counties last year.
In neighboring Washington County, the number of bear sightings was between 11 and 15. In Jefferson County, the number was 16 to 25.
North of the river, in Warren and St. Charles counties, the number of reported sightings was between one and five.
The bear population has grown to the extent that Missouri has instituted a black bear hunting season this fall, Oct. 18-27.
There are three hunting zones established, two of which include Franklin County with Highway 47 as the dividing line and the Missouri River as the northernmost boundary.
Each zone will be limited to a quota of kills.
Bear Management Zone 2, which includes the portion of Franklin County east of Highway 47, St. Louis, Rolla, Mark Twain National Forest and the Bootheel, will be limited to 150 permits and 15 total kills.
Bear Management Zone 3, which includes the western portion of Franklin County and expands went to include Jefferson City, Sedalia, Kansas City and Springfield, will be limited to 50 permits and just five total bears harvested.
As for overpopulation, researchers told the Columbia Missourian in July that bears won’t exceed a natural carrying capacity like deer because they have such large home ranges and reproduce slowly. Instead, they’re liable to exceed our cultural carrying capacity, making homes near communities and farms.
“Bears thirty years ago didn’t occur as widespread geographically, and they weren’t here in the numbers we have currently,” Conlee said. “So as that population continues to grow and expand as humans continue to grow and build houses, it increases situations where those social things will come into play.”
As bear populations expand into new areas of the state, Missourians will need to be “bear aware” in order to minimize conflict with them.
The Missouri Department of Conservation asks that all black bear sightings be reported so they can effectively track the expansion of bear populations. Conlee emphasized that because bears are recolonizing areas they haven’t lived in for decades, all Missourians need to understand what that entails.
“No matter where you live, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that you could have a bear sighting,” she said in July. “It’s time to think about what that means for your yard and your farm and your resources because a lot of these bears often come into contact with homes and communities.”
Armadillos were thought to be unable to survive in winter climates, but that has not stopped the northward expansion of the small mammal.
“They have made their way into this region and are here to stay, that’s for sure,” said Erin Shank, wildlife biologist for the conservation department. “I’ve been doing this for 18 years now, and when I started, we were just starting to see armadillos around. We really were telling people, ‘We will get a couple harsh winters, and they’ll die off. They’re just not well equipped to survive our winter. They don’t store fat well.’ We were proven wrong about that, and I don’t say that anymore. Around 10 years ago, I stopped telling people that.”
Nature has found a way for the largely nocturnal creatures to make their home here. Although the bulk of the Missouri armadillo population is located south of the Missouri River, the critters are sometimes sighted in the far northern reaches of the state.
“It’s clear that somehow, they hunker down and survive the winter,” Shank said. “Whether that’s in urban areas, especially where we have homes and some heat island effect through the winter, or if climate change has had something to do with that, they’ve proven that they can survive in colder temperatures.”
The armadillo’s northern expansion might not end with Missouri, either.
“I can imagine places like Ohio and West Virginia starting to see armadillos in time,” Shank said.
The animals are most commonly seen as roadkill along the highway. When the creature is startled, it is prone to jumping straight up in the air rather than curling up into a defensive ball as one might expect.
When this happens while an armadillo is crossing the highway and the animal gets startled by a car, the end result is often the armadillo jumping into the car’s grill.
Armadillos are nonthreatening and not aggressive but can present a lawn-nuisance for residents. Armadillos primarily feed on insects and larvae and often need to dig and root in the ground for their food.
“They’ll nose around and dig up plants and can absolutely be a nuisance that way,” Shank said. “It’s mostly garden damage where you have that looser soil, and it’s pretty easy for them to tear up somebody’s flower garden or vegetable garden. That’s a good opportunity for them to get themselves fed pretty quickly and in the process do a lot of damage.”
A 3-foot wire fence around the garden area with a small amount of the fence extending under the surface to prevent the armadillo from digging or crawling under it should be enough to keep them out.
“Armadillos aren’t very smart,” Shank said. “I don’t think they are capable of learning like you would expect from a raccoon or another type of yard pest. So scare tactics are important, but exclusion is your best bet if you’re having trouble with armadillos.”
The changing nature of habitats bringing new creatures into the state is not uncommon. Shank said the coyote is a similar example.
Coyotes filled a void in the ecosystem created when humans overhunted wolves and cougars out of the region.
“Prior to the eradication of wolves on the landscape, we did not have coyotes in this part of the Midwest because we had wolves and cougars,” Shank said. “They (coyotes) simply could not compete with those large, very efficient predators. Their (coyotes’) range was really more limited to the southwest region of the United States. So coyotes are a good example, but they’ve just been around longer, and we’ve all gotten used to them.
“It’s an interesting time to be studying the movement of plants and animals across the globe,” she said.