The Largest Wild Mammal in the “Show-Me State” Should Not Be a Source of Fear, but Deserves Respect
Eugene Gerve was awakened by the furious barking of his dog one May night. When he shined a spotlight into his yard in Webster County, Missouri, he was startled to find a 300-pound black bear a scant 15 feet away, rapidly emptying a cat food dispenser.
Gerve is one of a growing number of Missourians who have learned to take bears into account, whether they are at home or at play. The new awareness results from a black bear restoration program conducted by the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission in the 1950s and 1960s. The program’s success guaranteed that bears – who can’t read signs – would eventually cross the state line and repopulate their historic range in Missouri.
They began doing that at least as early as the 1980s and more likely in the ‘70s. Interestingly, Missouri probably would have gotten its own bear population without Arkansas’ help. DNA studies strongly suggest that bears in Webster and Douglas counties, which has Missouri’s highest-density population of the animals – are genetically distinct from Arkansas bears who probably stem from a remnant population that survived near-extermination in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Wherever they came from, the Show-Me State has an estimated population of several hundred black bears. Although they are much more common south of I-44 than in the northern two-thirds of the state, there have been confirmed sightings all the way from the Arkansas border to the Iowa State line. So no matter where you live, hunt, fish or camp, you might encounter a bear.
Bears are least likely to run afoul of humans in the fall, when “hard mast” food items – mostly acorns, are abundant. Spring and early summer are another matter. Bears are lean and hungry after their winter fast, and there’s little for them to eat besides grass and tender young vegetation. Things ease up a bit as summer progresses and berries and other “soft mast” become available. So the time you need to be most concerned about bears is from now until nuts start falling.
With that in mind, here are some thoughts about living with bears.
Gerve’s experience illustrates the main point to remember for preventing bear problems at home. Bears are not finicky eaters. Berries, roots, small animals, carrion, pet food, grain bins, bird seed, garbage and barbecue grills all are equally enticing to their sensitive nose. So it’s important not to leave these where bears can get at them. If you live north of the Missouri River, you probably don’t have to invest in bear-proof garbage cans, but it would be wise to keep containers of bird seed, pet or livestock food in locked buildings.
You need to adjust your attitude if you travel south of the Missouri River to float, fish, backpack, camp, hunt or picnic. If possible, keep coolers and other food containers locked in vehicles when unattended, along with trash.
When float-camping, bring along bear-proof containers, such as sturdy coolers with sturdy latches. Army-surplus ammunition cans are available in sizes large enough to accommodate all the non-perishable food you need for a couple of days. Never bring these containers or anything that smells like food into a tent or soft-sided camper at night. Hunger sometimes overwhelms the natural shyness of black bears enough to try to snatch food from under the nose of sleeping people. A slight miscalculation can result in a bear grabbing a camper’s foot instead of a hot dog.
When you are fortunate enough to bring fish or game back to camp, show the same caution with the harvest as you would with store-bought food stuffs or garbage. Don’t leave gut piles or other offal lying around camp or in the water nearby. Keep them far from camp or put them in trash bags and keep it where foraging bears can’t smell or reach them.
Even if you observe the foregoing cautions, you might end up face-to-face with a bear. I incurred such an event!
It’s important to remember that black bears are naturally afraid of people. Thousands of years of fighting losing battles with humans have removed most of the aggressive black bears from the gene pool, so when confronted by a human, 99.99 percent of black bears run away (unlike grizzly bears, which don’t live in Missouri). We will get back to that 0.01 percent of black bears in a minute.
Black bears and people end up face-to-face in two ways. One is when a bear is lured close to people by the promise of food. A bear that is rummaging in garbage, raiding a cooler, or guzzling nectar from a hummingbird feeder generally heads for the high timber when a human shouts at them, honks a horn or bangs pots and pans – all from indoors and at a safe distance, of course.
If a bear ever fails to hightail it when humans appear, call the nearest Missouri Department of Conservation office, conservation agent or law-enforcement agency for help. Bears are protected in Missouri and shooting one just because it showed its face where it isn’t welcome can earn you a hefty fine. If imminent loss of safety is involved, that’s another story.
The other way that bears and people end up in confrontations is surprise encounters. A bear foraging for berries might not hear a hiker walking silently along the Ozark Trail. Similarly, a bear has no way of knowing that it is approaching a deer hunter sitting in a tree stand. In cases like these, it’s up to the human to defuse a potentially dangerous situation. This is very important. Please heed.
Proximity is a very important consideration in handing bear confrontations. Just like people, bears have a personal space inside of which they feel threatened. Spying a bear 50 yards away, before it sees you, is a very different situation than looking up and seeing a bear that has just seen you 15 feet away.
In the first instance, the thing to do is to quietly leave the area. If the bear notices you as you are leaving, it might stand up on its hind legs. This is not a threat. The bear is simply trying to get a better look at you and figure out what you are. Don’t make eye contact, which bears perceive as aggressive. Instead, speak in a calm, conversational voice (letting the bear know that you are a human) and slowly back away until the bear is out of sight. Then quietly leave the area.
If you are uncomfortably close to a bear when you first see it, don’t turn and run or make any other sudden moves that might startle the bear. Again avoiding eye contact, back away. When surprised at close distance, a bear may feel threatened whatever you do. In such cases, black bears often snap their jaws and stamp their feet. This is the bear trying to intimidate you. It is not a sign that it is about to attack. If you back away without eye contact, the bear almost certainly will leave the area once it is sure you are not a threat.
It is not uncommon for black bears to make bluff charges to scare off a perceived threat. This is incredibly frightening. I have been bluff charged by a bear that I knew was restrained by a foot snare and I still fell over backwards in absolute terror. The good news is that bluff charges are just that – bluffs. If you do not react aggressively, the bear will leave after having given you a good scare. If you are made of sterner stuff than I was, the best way to react to a bluff charge is to look away and stand still. When the bear backs off, take your cue and back away slowly.
GOING TO EXTREMES
Now we get to that troublesome 0.01 percent of cases where a bear turns aggressive. These usually result when a female bear perceives a threat to her cubs. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t actually have to get between the sow and her cubs to trigger a protective attack. Just being too close for her comfort can be enough.
The best way to avoid this scenario is to make noise wherever you go. A sow that knows you are coming will get her cubs out of your way. If you see a bear cub, immediately leave the area the way you came.
A far less likely scenario is an encounter with that rare black bear that has lost its natural fear of people. Such bears do attack people on very rare occasions. However a bear attack begins, do not try to run away. The best track-and-field athletes in the world could not outrun a bear on level ground, let alone in the woods.
The black bear experts I have interviewed over the years advocate fighting back if you are attacked. Unlike grizzlies, which are not deterred by resistance, black bears have been repelled by small adults using nothing more than bare fists, rocks, sticks or whatever other weapons were at hand.
While I understand this, I also know that not everyone has the mental makeup to put up a fight in the face of an angry bear. I honestly don’t know if I could. If you find yourself unable to fight, then wrap your hands and arms around your neck and head and curl up in a fetal position. In all likelihood, the bear will stop when you no longer seem like a threat.
If the attack continues for more than a few seconds, the bear might actually be trying to kill you. At that point, you have no choice, but to screw up your courage and convince the bear that it will have to pay a high price for your life.
Having said all this scary stuff, I want to emphasize that more people die of bee stings, drowning, bicycle accidents, falls at home and infected hangnails than die of black bear attacks.
If you scour news media and historic records going back 200 years, you will be lucky to find a dozen cases of fatal black bear attacks. These are wild animals that deserve tremendous respect, but they do not pose a significant threat to people.
Don’t let overblown fears provoked by Hollywood horror flicks keep you away from Missouri’s outdoors!