Bear sightings reported in nearby counties, conservation biologists say don’t feed them

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The Missouri Department of Conservation has received several reports of recent bear sightings in Fenton and others in neighboring Jefferson, Franklin and Crawford Counties. They serve as reminder that black bears are becoming a growing part of the St. Louis regional landscape. 

Why the increase in sightings lately?  Missouri Department of Conservation’s ongoing bear research indicates the Show-Me-State is currently home to around 800 black bears, and that population is growing by 9% each year.   

While a natural and exciting part of Missouri’s woods, black bears do not make good dinner guests. The Missouri Department of Conservation recommends taking steps to avoid tempting them with human food, especially in areas where bears have been sighted. Photo Courtesy of the Missouri Department of Conservation.

According to the department, only one species can be found in this state—the American black bear—though multiple color phases can be found in Missouri, such that a bear’s fur can be brown, red or cinnamon in color.

Missouri Department of Conservation Wildlife Damage Control Biologist for the St. Louis Region, Tom Meister, said most bears are found in the southern part of Missouri, where there are the largest tracts of forested habitat. 

However, research also shows the population is expanding, both in total numbers and range. As the population grows and expands, bears are showing up in areas further north. 

Additionally, late spring and early summer is prime time for bears to be on the move. Young bears begin to wander, seeking food and an area to settle and adult males begin moving large distances searching for females. The recent uptick in sightings is likely a combination of bear range expanding and the time of year when bears can move large distances. 

These creatures are part of Missouri’s natural history, and many people enjoy the thought of seeing one of these impressive animals.  With an expanding population of bears, however, comes an increased potential of human-bear interactions. 

While generally not aggressive, like any wild animal, black bears are driven to find food. It takes a lot of calories to fuel an animal that typically weighs several hundred pounds, and they can be attracted to a variety of food sources this time of year.

“The bears have been out of hibernation since spring. Now they’re hungry.  They were dormant for all winter, and they’re looking for food. So, we don’t want to tempt them,” Meister said.

Food, or rather the lack of it, is key to avoiding conflicts with bears. Meister stressed not to offer them food, either intentionally or unintentionally.  Intentionally feeding bears can be dangerous as it makes the bears comfortable around people. It can also lead bears to cause significant damage to property while searching for a meal.

A bear that becomes accustomed to obtaining food from humans can become a problem that could result in an increased number of encounters, property damage, bold behavior and ultimately the euthanizing of the bear. People can prevent these types of situations by ensuring bears don’t have access to easy foods.

Despite their primary concentration in the Ozarks, the St. Louis region's latest sightings support the Missouri Department of Conservation wildlife biologists’ expectation that bear encounters will continue to increase as time goes by.

The Department of Conservation suggests the following tips to avoid issues if a bear has been sighted in the area:

  • Store garbage, recyclables, and compost inside a secure building or in a bear-proof container or location.
  • Regularly clean and disinfect trash containers to minimize smells that could attract bears.
  • 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.

These measures will also reduce problems with more common critters like raccoons and coyotes.

While black bears are generally a shy, non-aggressive species and bear attacks are rare throughout their range in North America, the Department of Conservation offers these tips to stay safe when outdoors in bear country:

  • Never deliberately offer a bear food.
  • 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.
  • Make noise, such as clapping, singing, or talking loudly, while hiking to prevent surprising a bear.
  • Travel in a group if possible.
  • Keep dogs leashed.
  • Be aware of your surroundings. If there are signs of a bear, such as tracks or scat, avoid the area.
  • Leave bears alone. Do not approach them, and make sure they have an escape route.

For more on black bears in Missouri, go to mdc.mo.gov/bearaware. Report bear sightings and submit photos online at mdc.mo.gov/reportbears.

In addition to directly educating Missourians on how to Be Bear Aware about black bears in the state, the Missouri Department of Conservation is also affiliated with the BearWise program. 

BearWise is a multi-state education effort developed by black bear biologists and supported by state wildlife agencies, such as the Missouri Department of Conservation, that provides sound information and smart solutions that help people, neighborhoods, and communities prevent problems with black bears and keep bears wild. 

BearWise shares ways to prevent conflicts, provides resources to resolve problems and encourages community initiatives to keep bears wild. Learn more at BearWise.org.