ST. LOUIS — The state Department of Conservation has begun a two-year effort to determine how many black bears are living in Missouri following an increase in sightings in recent years.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Thursday that biologists have been tracking the bears in 11 counties in far southern Missouri since last fall. The animals apparently are migrating to Missouri from Arkansas, which imported black bears from Minnesota four decades ago.
Missouri's chief biologist, Jeff Beringer, uses doughnuts to bait large steel traps. When the bears go inside the traps, a grate slams shut. Sightings and anecdotal tales make it clear that the population is growing, he said, but nobody has any idea how many are out there.
"It's like walking up to a two-acre pond and saying, 'How many bass are in there?'" Beringer said. "That's about where we are at estimating bears."
So far, the crew has caught and released 49 bears, including five on Tuesday in Howell and Oregon counties, north of the Arkansas border. Thirty of them have been equipped with GPS collars, allowing the study group to track their travels and locate their dens.
Beringer and his crew are counting the bears in far southern Missouri, where the hilly wooded Ozarks provide perfect bear habitat. Next year, the group will go to 12 southeastern counties, stretching north into Jefferson and Franklin counties.
When a bear is found, it is sedated for about an hour so workers can attach the collars. The crew has been monitoring 25 traps daily. Beringer said the traps are set deep in the woods on ridgetops, the better to allow doughnut aroma to waft through the trees.
Like most people, bears love doughnuts, Beringer said.
"Bears go right for them," he said. "If you live on bugs and acorns, a doughnut is delicious."
The project also has rigged 375 "hair snare" locations throughout the study area. Fish-oil bait is ringed by barbed wire and when bears brush against them they leave bits of fur. A graduate student assistant from MU will pluck the samples for a DNA study.
The bear project is a collaboration between the state, MU and Mississippi State University.
The scientists will estimate the bear population when they gather enough data.
"Clearly, the population is on the increase," Beringer said. "We don't want them to be so abundant that they become a nuisance. The first thing is to get a handle on how many there are."
Black bears almost always run away when they encounter people, unless a mother bear believes her cubs are in danger. There is no record of a black bear hurting anyone in the state. Conservation agents say people should not feed bears, or leave food around that bears can get because they will come back for more. When they start to expect handouts, they can become a nuisance.
Beringer said Missouri may someday allow bear hunting, which it has prohibited for decades. Arkansas, with an estimated bear population of about 3,500, has allowed limited hunting since 1980. Population estimates nationwide run around 200,000 black bears, most of them in mountain states east and west.