A hundred years ago, the North American Black Bear was thought to be completely wiped out of Missouri because of humans altering their habitat and over hunting for food and pelts.
But they've been making a comeback in Missouri.
In 1958, something huge happened for black bears in our region. An Arkansas biologist made a deal with Minnesota and Canada, to trade wild turkeys for 254 black bears. Today, Arkansas has nearly 5,000 bears, and this has had an impact on Missouri.
Bear biologist Jerry Belant explains. "From that population increase in Arkansas, we are seeing spillover effects into Missouri."
Belant, who's researching Mississipi's growing black bear population, has also been working with scientists in Missouri. "We have this rare opportunity to study the colonization or re-colonization patterns of a large carnivore."
Tracking the growth in Missouri
Jeff Beringer is leading a team on a hike through south central Missouri in the Ozark Higlands. He's part of The Missouri Black Bear Project, which started in 2010 in response to the growing number of bear sightings happening around the state.
By collecting hair samples and putting tracking collars on bears, initially it was determined that there were 280 bears in the state. Some a part of the Arkansas spillover, and some hypothesized to be part of a remnant population.
"There has to be a certain amount of wildness for bears to make a living."
Beringer says the fact bears are back and doing well in Missouri, makes the state seem more exciting.
Using an antenna, Beringer picks up high frequencies from a tracking collar put on the bear a few years ago. He follows the beeps to a slash pile, basically a large pile of sticks. Inside, he finds a mother bear and three of her yearling cubs hibernating.
The yearlings blink their eyes open, panting groggily, but the mom is passed out.
Beringer tranquilizes the mother, so that he can replace her old tracking collar. His team puts up thermometers around the den site and measures the density of the nearby forest. They also put up cameras, so they can watch the den activity remotely.
Beringer says they've put about 85 collars on bears so far in Missouri. When collars get too old, they're designed to fall off. Replacing the old collars with new ones keeps the data coming in.
Beringer says the data shows there are about 350 bears in Missouri now. The population is growing slowly but steadily. The black bears also are expanding north. One bear was even tracked to Iowa.
What this means for humans
Beringer says it is possible that Missouri could someday see the return of a bear hunting season, but that's a ways off.
Right now, it's about taking advantage of a rare research opportunity. So far, Missouri continues to prove to have great bear habitat especially in the old growth forests in southern Missouri, where there is an abundance of food like acorns and berries.
Beringer says it's important for Missourians to start thinking about bears.
"It's important to plan. What am I going to do if I go camping? What am I going to do with my food? What if a bear walks into my campsite? And we want to tell people that you don't need to fear bears, you just need to be bear aware," he says.
Meaning, don't feed them, lock up your food, and generally, leave them alone.
The Missouri Bear Project is funded until 2021, and both Jeff Beringer and Jerry Belant, who are old college friends, are scheduled to present the research they've been collecting in Missouri and Mississippi this summer at the International Bear Association meeting in Alaska.
Suzanne Hogan is a reporter, announcer and producer for KCUR 89.3.