Three black bear cubs look down on a team of Missouri conservationists from a tree branch about 60 feet above. They’re scared, but after climbing that distance in a matter of seconds, they’re safe.
They were probably about 4 months old, Mike Woodring, a retired conservation officer, said, in a recent interview. Woodring is involved with the Missouri Department of Conservation’s efforts to track the growing black bear population in Missouri. He’s trapped more than 30 bears during his career, his most recent was on that morning, when this mother of three took the bait.
“We used to give them donuts. But chocolate can be harmful to bears,” Woodrin said. Now, they use a mixture of molasses, commodity feed pellets and Missouri pecans.
Jeff Beringer, the Conservation Department’s lead bear scientist, joined the conversation. “The point is, we’re trying to use natural, native bait,” he said.
The trapped bear is tranquilized and removed from the trap to record biological measurements. Information like tooth health, head size and number of offspring speaks volumes for the fitness of the Missouri bear population as a whole. Conservation workers also place collars on the bears to track their movements.
But putting a collar on a sleeping bear isn’t as straightforward as you might think.
“You don’t want to put it too tight. Right now, they’re about as thin as they’re going to be this year,” said Beringer.
He measures the sow’s neck, and then adds two belt holes on the collar size for good measure. A sow caught later that day already had a collar, which means she’d been trapped about a year and a half before.
“They give us two years on a [collar] battery, but we want to make sure we can keep her on the air, so I’m going to be put a fresh battery on her,” said Beringer. “We’ll take this one back to the office, and we’ll be able to download all of the locations she’s been in the past year. She’s probably got a thousand locations on this collar.”
Missouri is home to more than 300 black bears, but a run-in with one is still unlikely, especially if you live in the northern two-thirds of the state.
It wasn’t always this way. They used to flourish here, and people depended on them.
“Bears were really important for our early settlers to eat. Bears have a fat on them somewhat like hogs, and so they could use that fat to waterproof their leather, to make candles, they could render it, so it was an important resource.”
Beringer says over-hunting paired with agricultural development eventually weakened Missouri’s wildlife populations.
“What we saw were animals like bears, elk, deer, turkeys sort of got shut out of that area because of the drastic changes in the landscape.”
By the 1930s, bears were thought to be gone. But Beringer suggested Missouri’s landscape now is becoming more hospitable.
“Since then, a lot of these farms didn’t make it, or they weren’t economically feasible and the land reverted back to wild lands. We have almost 3 million acres of publicly owned, fairly wild lands in the state. So there’s a place for these kinds of animals now in Missouri.”
Missouri's bear population is thriving, thanks to reintroduction efforts in Arkansas in the 1960s. Bears are slow and steady creatures, biologically speaking, so their population is only now stable enough to study.
"A bear doesn’t breed until its anywhere between ages 3 and 7,” said Beringer. “They just don’t have high reproductive rates. But they tend to be long-lived, that’s their strategy.”
A mother bear usually stays with her cubs for two years. When the cubs are old enough to be on their own, their mom will breed again in June. But the female bear’s body doesn’t commit to supporting a fertilized egg until the dead of winter.
“They have something called delayed implantation,” said Beringer. “So a female bear gets bred, the egg implants with the sperm, but it stays floating around the uterus and doesn’t implant December.”
If the mother bear doesn’t store enough food in the fall, that fertilized egg will never implant. If she has enough nutrition to last her until spring, she’ll give birth around January in a metabolic stupor. The tiny, hairless cubs crawl up to their mom and nurse on her until the warm weather arrives. Then, she shows them the ropes, so to speak, and the cycle begins again.
“She probably shows them when to eat common black beetles, white oak acorns, blueberries,” Beringer said. “I bet you they look at den sites for the next year, and then they den with her that winter, as well. They’re good mothers, they spend a lot of time with their offspring.”
In addition to collecting data from the radio collars, Missouri scientists are studying the genetic makeup of Missouri’s black bear population. Most are from Arkansas, having been transplanted from Minnesota and Canada. But some research points toward of a small, native Missouri population lurking all this time, deep in the Ozarks. Beringer calls this ‘“the sexy theory” for the state’s revival of black bears.
“If we could get a bear skull from the 1800s and compare the DNA, I think we could answer that question," Beringer said. "Right now, it’s a plausible theory, but not proven.”