From the Missouri Department of Conservation
-- “Although their time has long since passed, bears have a well documented history in early Missouri.” Daniel McKinsley, author, The History of the Black Bear in Missouri, 1962.
Beekeepers who have lost hives to hungry bears can tell you that Daniel Kinsley’s history needs updating. With reasonable precautions, however, the revised history need not be titled Bad News Bears.”
Black bears, once considered extirpated in the Show-Me State, have been staging a comeback for at least 25 years. Their resurgence is the result of a black bear reintroduction program started by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission in the 1950s. That effort re-established a breeding population south of the Missouri border. As that population expanded and filled available habitat, bears moved north.
Today, the Missouri Department of Conservation estimates the state’s black bear population at a few hundred and growing.
Evidence of this trend can be found in reports of a few bear-vehicle collisions each year. The most recent example was a 260-pound male bear killed by a vehicle near Willow Springs around July 8.
Most bears coming into Missouri from Arkansas are young males looking for their own territories. Sightings of females with cubs also are on the rise, however. Earlier this year, Conservation Department Photographer Noppadol Paothong photographed a black bear sow with three cubs in Christian County.
Missouri counties with the most bear activity are Iron, Shannon, Carter, Ripley, Reynolds, Howell, Ozark, Barry, Taney, Christian, Stone and Douglas. Ozark County is the epicenter of bear activity, with more than 100 reports since 1987. The next-most-active counties are Taney, Carter, Reynolds and Howell.
Although the Conservation Department has confirmed several bear reports north of the Missouri River, the area with most bear activity remains south of I-44.
Sightings are few during the winter, when bears are less active. They increase in April and peak between mid-May and mid-June, when natural foods are scarce and bears are actively foraging. Mirroring this seasonal pattern was an incident in mid-May. A Taney County beekeeper lost five hives to a hungry bear. The owner estimated the resulting damage at $1,200 to $1,500 worth of honey, plus $500 and 30 hours of labor for repairs.
The beekeeper’s next expenditure was $250 for an electric fence.
“He knew that there were bears around his area,” said James Dixon, the Conservation Department wildlife damage biologist who handled the beekeeper’s call for help, “but he hadn't taken any preventative measures because none of the other local beekeepers he knew had had problems. I helped him install an electric fence to protect his remaining hives. He could have avoided the financial loss caused by the bear if he would have made the investment in the fence when he first heard there were bears in the area.
Dixon said many other beekeepers fail to take precautions because they do not realize how real the risk is and how much they stand to lose. The Conservation Department receives roughly 200 bear sighting-reports each year. The agency has no way of knowing how many more sightings go unreported.
“We can help after people have a problem,” said Dixon, “but we really prefer to head off problems beforehand if possible. With bear problems, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Information about avoiding bear problems is available online at www.mdc.mo.gov/7835 or by calling the nearest Conservation Department office.
–By Jim Low