SPRINGFIELD — Note to self: Don't hike with a backpack full of glazed doughnuts.
The sweet treats are the bait of choice for luring Missouri black bears into portable traps for an ongoing research project to determine how the state's bear population is doing.
A few weeks ago I joined Department of Conservation bear researcher Jeff Beringer while he and several colleagues checked a number of bear traps in counties southeast of Springfield.
Bear Number 37 obliged by gorging on day-old doughnuts in a trap about eight miles southwest of Seymour before triggering a trap door that contained her, unharmed, inside a sturdy metal tube.
The bear, a 5-year-old female, huffed and popped her lips in agitation as Beringer peered inside the trap, looking for an easy way to inject her with a tranquilizer that would give him and his team about 45 minutes to inspect, measure, weigh and extract a small tooth to more accurately determine her age.
Researchers use doughnuts to catch and study Missouri's growing bear population.
"We've caught this girl before, last September," said Beringer, after noting the radio collar with the number "37" around her neck. She shows up in his thick record book that lists dozens of bears he has caught since the study began in 2010.
Ten minutes later, groggy and immobile, Number 37 is hauled out of the trap. Beringer covers her eyes with a cloth and sets to work. Although a healthy 205 pounds, the bear's fur is thin in spots, with dark skin showing beneath. She might be suffering from mange.
Beringer removes the old collar and attaches a new one. The collar sends radio pulses to orbiting satellites, allowing Beringer to track her movements. Next winter the collar will lead him to her hibernation den, where he hopes he'll find her with up to three cubs lying beside her.
Into the research record book they'll go.
"Females are the key to our bear population, which is why we're focusing on trapping and collaring females now," Beringer says. "Female survival rates are the most important thing for us to understand."
The main thing researchers want to know: How many bears live in Missouri, and what do they do? In 2012, research data and statistical analysis estimating numbers of females and surviving cubs indicated there were 272 male and female black bears in the state, he said. "By 2014 we think we're up around 300 bears."
Several decades ago, Arkansas began reintroducing black bears into native territory. As more bears began showing up in Missouri, many assumed they were Arkansas bears moving north as they expanded their territories.
Beringer, however, said DNA analysis of hair samples taken from Missouri bears revealed something curious.
"The genetic study was real interesting to me," Beringer said. "We compared bears here with those in Arkansas, Manitoba and Minnesota and found they are vastly different and distinct. Either our bears have interbred so often their DNA is different, or we could have a remnant bear population that never went away in this part of the world. I'm leaning toward the latter."
Randall Roy, a conservation wildlife biologist who helps with Beringer's research, said studies show that big male black bears roam great distances in the Ozarks searching for their own territory. The biggest male they've trapped was a 485-pounder. Females are significantly smaller: The largest they've caught weighed 300 pounds.
Male black bears will roam a 140 square-mile area, while females tend to stay within 40 square miles. Females tend to go into their hibernation dens the last week of November, while males stay active until about Dec. 10.
Missouri interstate highways also tend to dissuade bears from moving farther north. Radio collar data from one bear showed it took two days to successfully cross I-44 west of Rolla after it went on a 500-mile "walkabout" from southern Missouri to Jefferson City. That bear, unfortunately, was discovered eating a farmer's goat and was shot and killed.
Although Missouri bears are protected and there is no hunting season on them, landowners have the right to protect their property.
Beringer said that's a key reason why the current bear research project is important.
"As we begin to encounter more bears we need to know how they will interact with people," Beringer said. "The biggest problem we see is people feeding them — leaving food out where the bears can get at it, like bird feeders and pet food bowls. We need to determine what's a good population of bears we can sustain in Missouri without causing problems with people."
As bear Number 37 recovered in the shade from her tranquilizer shot, I got a chance to meet her up close and personal. I cradled her head in my hands, and felt her fur, which was much coarser and wiry than I expected. Though still sedated she knew I was there — her eyes followed mine as I got the rare chance to handle her.
The day's research over for Number 37, Roy stuffed more doughnuts into the trap in hopes of catching a different bear. It seems clear that black bears are expanding their range in the Ozarks, repopulating areas that once were theirs alone before humans arrived.
"We do have a breeding population right here in Douglas, Webster and Christian counties," Roy said.