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How Missouri Became ‘Bear Country’ Again After Near-Depletion

The Missouri Department of Conservation estimates that there are now about 540 to 840 black bears in Missouri.
Jitze Couperus
The Missouri Department of Conservation estimates that there are now about 540 to 840 black bears in Missouri.

Black bears once thrived in Missouri, but habitat changes and logging by European settlers in the late 1800s drastically decreased their population. As Laura Conlee of the Missouri Department of Conservation puts it: “The numbers just kept dwindling. And we got to a point here in the state where we really thought that the bear population was extirpated, so they were driven to local extinction.”

Now, black bears are making a tremendous comeback in the Show-Me State. The animal’s resurgence, primarily due to the efforts of Missouri’s neighbors to the south, even has state regulators planning a short black bear hunting season.

Conlee is a furbearer biologist for the state and has studied the black bear community. She explained that the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's efforts to reintroduce black bears into the Ozarks and Washington regions of Arkansas in the 1950s and ‘60s led to species’ comeback. And as that population grew, more bears started wandering into Missouri and became established in the state.

Conlee refers to the resurgence as a huge conservation success story. She estimates that there are now about 540 to 840 black bears in Missouri, and that the number is growing annually at about 9%.

“Nine percent doesn't mean a whole lot to most folks. But what that number actually means is that in about a decade at that growth rate, we would expect the population to double,” she explained.

On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, Conlee joined host Sarah Fenske to discuss the expanding black bear population in Missouri, new hunting guidelines and the Be Bear Aware Campaign. The campaign is geared at informing citizens about black bears as more of the animals show up in the St. Louis region.

“We have dispersing bears that show up in places where most folks wouldn't necessarily think they're going to wind up,” she said in regard to places like Ballwin and Eureka. Conlee explained that they’re usually young males wandering after they split from their mothers.

“Just recognize that with this growing bear population, that Missouri is ‘bear country’; even if you don't live in the heart of the Ozarks, it's totally possible to have a bear wander through your neighborhood,” she added.

If you see a bear in your area, you can contact the Missouri Department of Conservation to fill outa report or find out more information about best practices.

While surrounding states have designated hunting seasons for the animal, Missouri does not. But the state's Conservation Commission announced last Friday that it will be legal to hunt black bears in Missouri starting next fall.

Conlee explained that a limited number of hunters will have access to the 10-day hunting season and that there will be a cap on the total number of bears that can be harvested. The sale of bear gallbladders will also be prohibited.

Proposed Black Bear Hunting in Missouri

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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