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Missouri is holding its first black bear hunt, and some conservationists aren't happy

Missouri's black bears will be hunted again starting Monday. The population was decimated in the early 20th century but the Conservation Commission has decided the repopulation is sufficient for a regulated harvest.
Robert F. Bukaty
Missouri's black bears will be hunted again starting Monday. The population was decimated in the early 20th century, but the Department of Conservation has decided the repopulation is sufficient for a regulated harvest.

Missouri's black bears were decimated in the early 20th century, but have come back in recent years. With an estimated 800 bears now living in the state, the Department of Conservation is holding a regulated hunt to help with population control.

Missouri’s first-ever regulated black bear hunt begins Monday after decades of efforts to rebuild the population.

But critics say the bear hunt only benefits a small group of people interested in recreational trophy gathering.

“A lot of hunters don’t even eat bear meat,” says Sophia Ressler, staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity’s carnivore conservation program. “They do these hunts for bear skin rugs and mounting heads on the wall.”

The Missouri Department of Conservation, which is running the hunt, estimates there are around 800 black bears in Missouri.

Laura Conlee, a bear biologist at the department, says that Missouri’s bear population is growing at around 9% annually. At that pace, they estimate the bear population would double by 2030.

“And with that, when we looked at the bear population, we determined it's reached levels where it can sustain a limited and highly regulated harvest,” Conlee said.

Ressler is skeptical of those numbers.

“Theirs is a total estimate,” she says. “It’s very difficult for these agencies in states that have black bears to get exact black bear populations.”

Missouri issued 400 permits for the hunting season, randomly selected from 6,000 applicants who paid $10 apiece.

“It is not a trophy season,” Conlee says. “There is an expectation that the meat is used. So we have rules within the code, or wildlife code, that require the hunters to retrieve those commonly edible portions.”

This year’s hunt is scheduled for 10 days, but the state set a quota of 40 bears. If the hunters report hitting that limit before Oct. 28, the hunt would stop.

The Missouri Department of Conversation limits hunters to one bear per permit. Only lone bears may be hunted; bears that are in the presence of other bears or cubs are off-limits.

The state also requires bears be tele-checked — that is, they have to be reported by phone before 10 p.m. the day of the kill.

Nicole Cordano, a campaign director with Bear Defenders, says that’s the problem with reporting kills. She says there’s no real verification of the number of bears hunted — it’s all the honor system.

“That brings up a lot of concerns,” she says. “How are you going to regulate the number of bears being killed if you’ve sold 400 permits and you’re only supposed to kill 40 bears?”

Overkilling is a major risk because bears reproduce slowly. Missouri’s bear population was decimated in the early 20th century by logging and unregulated hunting. After reintroduction efforts in Arkansas, bears have slowly trickled back into the state.

“You’re talking about 100 years, and there’s only between 540 and 800 bears,” Cordano says.

In Florida, Cordano says her organization was successful in halting bear hunts after its first season. She’s hoping they can get enough signatures on their petition at change.org to halt the hunts after this year.

Conlee says future permit numbers and quotas for future bear hunts in Missouri will be determined by the Conservation Commission.

Corrected: October 18, 2021 at 1:37 PM CDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the number of hunting permit applicants; the correct number is 6,000. The headline has also been updated.
As KCUR’s general assignment reporter and visual journalist, I bring our audience inside the daily stories that matter most to the people of the Kansas City metro, showing how and why events affect residents. Through my photography, I seek to ensure our diverse community sees itself represented in our coverage. Email me at carlos@kcur.org.
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