Conservation department to study growing bear population in depth

Tuesday, June 22, 2010 | 6:32 p.m. CDT; updated 4:14 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, June 23, 2010

COLUMBIA—When Jeff Ford's boss first showed him a picture of a bear at his home outside Springfield in 1989, Ford said he couldn't believe his eyes.

"I thought he was pulling my leg," Ford said.

These days, Ford has trail cameras set up to capture pictures of the bears on his property. Ford said he looks forward to the day he can hunt them.

Black bears, once plentiful in Missouri, were all but extinct from the state by the late 19th century.  As Ford's photos and other sightings across the state testify, bears are making a comeback.

The bears' return to the state raises questions of when the population will be large enough to hunt and how best to prevent conflicts between humans and bears.

The Missouri Department of Conservation will begin a $300,000, four-year study next month to learn more about the population of bears in Missouri.

The department has applied for wildlife restoration money generated with revenue from taxes on the sales of firearms and archery equipment. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service administers those funds.

"We need to know where and how many there are, and that's going to dictate how we manage them," Jeff Beringer, department biologist, said.

According to the study proposal, the department will begin discussing a hunting season if the population is estimated at more than 500 individuals, the lowest estimate is greater than 300 and the population contains both males and reproducing females.

The department will work with Jerry Belant of Mississippi State University to put radio collars on 10 bears — five adult females and five adult males.

The collars will tell researchers where bears are moving and the size of their ranges.

Next year, researchers will set up "hair snares" designed to lure bears over fine-gauge barbed wire and capture tufts of hair.

MU's Lori Eggert, who is leading the effort to extract DNA from the snared hair, was quick to point out that the barbed wire is fine enough that it does not hurt the bears or other animals.

With the DNA information, researchers will be able to identify individuals, determine the animals' sex, and analyze results for whether there are parents and offspring in the population, which would indicate that females are reproducing.

In addition to the number and location of bears, biologists need to know how many bears are reproducing females and how many are wandering males. That information will help the department assess whether the population is adequate to be hunted and how to structure any future hunting season.

In 2007, Eggert was involved in another study on bears that tested the effectiveness of the hair snares as a sampling technique and gathered genetic data on the bears. The project demonstrated the method was reliable; results from the genetic information are being prepared for publication in a scientific journal.

The new study will be more comprehensive, covering a larger area and sampling more bears.

While both scientists and residents await more information on bears, researchers point out that it is vital to treat the naturally shy but powerful animals with respect.

The most important thing residents living in the renewed bear country can do is avoid leaving food or trash out that might attract animals, Eggert said.

"Bears are no different than raccoons or other species. They will come to a free meal," she said.

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