Conservation officials offer advice for keeping bear encounters harmless

JEFFERSON CITY-Warm weather is returning to the Show-Me State, and that means the state's black bears will be more active. The Missouri Department of Conservation has advice for keeping both bears and property safe.

Spring is a lean time for bears. Many of their dietary staples - berries, acorns and other natural fruit - won't start maturing for several more weeks. Hungry bears go in search of food, and conflicts with humans can arise when those wanderings lead to bee hives, trash cans and pet food.

The Missouri Department of Conservation says the state has an undetermined number of black bears. The animals' shy nature makes bear sightings relatively rare. Still, the agency receives roughly 200 reports each year. Missourians are urged to report bear sightings to the nearest Conservation Department office.

Missouri counties with the most bear activity are Iron, Shannon, Carter, Ripley, Reynolds, Howell, Ozark, Barry, Taney, Christian, Stone and Douglas. Ozark County is the epicenter of bear activity, with 100 reports since 1987. The next-most-active counties are Taney, Carter, Reynolds and Howell.

In recent years, the Conservation Department has been receiving more reports of bears north of I-44. Marion County in northeastern Missouri is the most northerly county with a confirmed bear sighting.

The number of bear reports begins to climb in April and peaks between mid-May and mid-June. Conservation Department Furbearer Biologist Jeff Beringer says a little knowledge goes a long way toward preventing such encounters from leading to serious trouble.

"Bears are naturally shy of people," said Beringer, "so they seldom go looking for trouble. But they don't know the difference between a dead fish in a stream and a garbage bag containing fish heads from a fishing trip. It all smells like food to them."

Once a bear associates food with people, its chances of getting in trouble increase dramatically. The old saying, "A fed bear is a dead bear" is simply shorthand for something biologists know. Bears that hang around people are likely to cause trouble, and that trouble eventually comes back to bite the bear.

One reason that bears get in trouble is that their idea of what is "food" does not always match what people consider edible. Suet, millet and sunflower seed might not seem appetizing to you, but they are very attractive to hungry bears. And while a trash can full of smelly garbage might seem disgusting to the person who put it beside the road for pickup the next day, it is a treasure trove to a bruin with an empty stomach.

To keep bears from acquiring a taste for human-generated food, store garbage, pet food, livestock feed, bird seed and anything else that looks or smells even remotely edible indoors or in bear-proof containers. Clean up feed spills completely, and put out garbage as near to pickup time as possible. If a bear visits your bird feeders, take them down for two or three months to avoid becoming a regular stop on the bruin's foraging rounds.

Other helpful tips include:

§ Clean up outdoor grills after each use and store them in sheds.

§ Put garbage out the morning of collection.

§ Don't place meat or sweet food scraps in your compost pile.

§ Never cook, eat or store food in tents or sleeping areas when camping.

§ Keep food locked inside vehicles when not in use. If a bear enters your campsite, get inside your vehicle and stay there until the bear leaves.

§ Never intentionally feed bears.

Spring also can bring bears into contact with hunters, anglers and hikers. Most human-bear encounters are fleeting and uneventful. However, such encounters can be frightening for people and for bears. Knowing how to avoid encounters with bears and how to act when you do see one helps keep people and bears safe.

Attacks by black bears are rare. Most occur because the animal is frightened or is defending cubs against a perceived threat. Black bears are excellent climbers, so trees offer little refuge.

Beringer recommends talking, whistling or attaching a small bell to clothing or pack to avoid startling bears while hiking or fishing. If you encounter a bear and it has not seen you, leave the area quietly and quickly.

If the bear is aware of your presence, avoid making eye contact, which bears perceive as a threat. Back away while speaking in a normal tone of voice. Don't run or make sudden movements.

Bears' poor vision sometimes makes it difficult for them to identify humans, even at close range. In such situations, bears may stand on their hind legs and lift their noses high in the air. This is not a threat. The bear is just trying to use its keen sense of smell to find out what you are.

Avoid making a bear feel cornered. Black bears seldom attack if they can retreat. On a trail, step off the trail on the downhill side and slowly leave the area.

If you see a cub, move slowly and calmly away from it. Be on the lookout for other cubs, and avoid getting near them, which could trigger an adult bear's protective instincts.

In the event of an attack, fight back. Black bears have been driven away when people fought back with rocks, sticks, even bare hands.

Shouting, banging pots and pans or making other loud noises almost always will frighten a bear away. If these measures fail, call a conservation agent or the nearest Conservation Department office.

Bears are protected by the Wildlife Code of Missouri, and it is illegal to kill one unless it is threatening people or property.

"The Conservation Department has people trained to deal with bear problems of all kinds," said Beringer. "Bears are an exciting and important part of Missouri's wildlife, and when conflicts arise, we want to help people resolve them in the best possible way."