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April 17, 2014 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Black bears are coming home. And they’re just in time for the new Disneynature film, Bears, which follows two cubs through their wildlife lessons. The film begins as the season of hibernation ends, and the cubs struggle to avoid the dangers of avalanches, rival bears and a wolf pack.
Resource scientist Jeff Beringer of the Missouri Department of Conservation gets to follow the lives of bears off screen. He tracks black bears in the state using hair snares and radio collars. An estimate of more than 250 bears reside in Missouri today after nearly disappearing in the 1920s. There have been three bear sightings in Boone County since 2007, a small number compared to the countless brown bears in Alaska where the movie is set. But Missouri has to start somewhere in the wildlife resurface race.
Any county in Missouri can be considered bear country, so follow these commandments of camping from the Missouri Department of Conservation to ensure a safe trip.
1. Keep a clean camp. Food and other items will appeal to a bear's sense of smell.
2. Thoroughly clean all utensils immediately after use.
3. Place garbage where bears can't smell or gain access to it. Try bear-proof containers or dumpsters. DO NOT bury garbage because the bears will dig it up.
4. Do not eat or cook in your tent and don't store food in your tent. You don't want to wake up to a bear eating inside your tent.
5. Treat nonfood items like toothpaste, gum or soap, like food. A bear's sense of smell is attracted to them.
6. Immediately store food in airtight containers after every use.
7. Plan your meals so you generate as little food garbage as possible.
8. Never attempt to feed a bear or any other wild animal for that matter.
9. Never approach wildlife, especially black bears. This should go without saying, but they're dangerous.
10. Keep your dog on a leash and clean up any leftover food after your dog is done eating.
For more information, visit the Missouri Department of Conservation's website.
The re-emergence of black bears is a sign that Missouri’s forest habitat is healing, says Lori Eggert, an associate professor in MU’s division of biological science. They mostly reside in southern Missouri and likely ventured here from Arkansas, where many were reintroduced in the 1950s. A few might have also survived in the Ozark area from the 1920s.
Eggert says Missouri has smartly invested in conservation, which has helped fuel the recovery of the bear population. “People go to Yellowstone to see bears, but if all goes right, we can see them here at home,” Eggert says.
Black bears are the least aggressive of the American group according to Eggert, but don’t expect to mingle with them all Christopher Robin-style. “Some, when you come up to them in the in traps, they’re sleeping,” Beringer says. “You wake them, tranquilize them, and they barely huff. Others look like they want to eat you if they could.”
Don’t feed bears, intentionally or unintentionally, by leaving out trash, dog food or bird feeders. Otherwise, bears begin to associate seeing people with getting food, and you don’t want that drama. Just search “bear attacks” on YouTube if you need more convincing.
Eggert says that bears have a strong cultural significance in the U.S. “People can look back to the story of the three bears,” she says. “It goes back in our culture. In all North American cultures, even many Native American cultures, they all have stories about them.”
Although people tend to think of Africa and Australia as the harborers of cool wildlife, don’t discount our homeland. With the introduction of Bears the movie, and bears in Missouri, it’s time to get pumped up for a U.S. wildlife comeback.
Illustration by Rebecca Reno