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Missouri’s Black Bear Population Is Rising And Wandering To More Parts Of The State

A male American black bear trapped near Warrenton, Missouri in 2016.
Missouri Department of Conservation
Black bear sightings are increasing in Missouri beyond the Ozarks region. The pictured male black bear was captured near Warrenton in 2016.

The number of black bears in Missouri has more than doubled in seven years, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation. 

There are now as many as 840 black bears in the state, primarily in the Ozarks south of Highway 60. In recent years, there have been more sightings of black bears in other parts of Missouri, conservation officials say. 

The presence of black bears has particularly increased near Lake of the Ozarks and in southwest St. Louis County, said Laura Conlee, a furbearer biologist at the Department of Conservation.

“We’ve definitely had bears that have basically followed forested corridors, river corridors, things like that up to St. Louis,” Conlee said. “The bears are filling in a lot of habitat they used to occur in but haven’t for a really long time.” 

Hunting in the 1800s nearly wiped out Missouri’s black bear population. Genetic research has shown that a very small number of black bears remained in the Ozarks for many decades. 

The recent rise in the black bear’s numbers is largely due to successful reintroduction efforts in neighboring states. Some of Arkansas’ population, which is more than 3,000, has moved north to Missouri. 

To help control the black bear population, the Department of Conservation is considering a limited bear-hunting season, but has not announced when that would occur. The department has received more reports about the species being a nuisance in public spaces. For example, in May, a black bear entered a school in Eureka.

An increasing black bear population is a sign of healthy forests, Conlee said. 

“They eat a lot of plant material, and they serve as seed dispersers,” she said. 

Conlee is studying black bear survival rates. State conservation biologists also have put collars on female bears to help track where the species are going and predict what areas might see more black bears.

The Conservation Department has held multiple meetings this summer to share its black bear management plan with the public. The next one is taking place July 30 at the Powder Valley Conservation Nature Center in Kirkwood. 

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Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.