LAKE OF THE OZARKS, Mo. — Rumors abound of black bears ambling around the Lake, and the Missouri Department of Conservation says those rumors are true.
Although the black bear (Ursus americanus) is a Missouri native, the bear’s population has been quite sparse over the last century. The targeting of predators that was prevalent the late 19th and early 20th centuries severely impacted all large predators in North America. Bears, at least, seem to be making a comeback at the Lake.
Conservation officer Tyler Brown of the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Camdenton office says there have been several confirmed sightings recently. “We have always known they are here,” Brown said. “But nowadays, with technology what it is, it seems like everyone has a trail cam.” So the presence of bears is becoming more widely known.
Agent Brown said the majority of the bears sighted in the area are young males less than 2 years of age. These bears weigh between 75 and 100 pounds, and are often mistaken for cubs by people whose idea of a bear is more akin to an 8-foot-tall, one-thousand-pound grizzly. “Black bears are a completely different animal,” Brown explained. “In Missouri, 300 pounds is a very, very large bear.”
It seems that these young male bears are moving up from the southern part of the state, where populations have been stronger, looking to establish their own home range and territories. This is a good sign for the recovery of bear populations and, with a little extra care, presents minimal threat to the human population of the area.
Mike Duncan of ETC, Inc. claims he saw a mother with two cubs at his home/facility off Highway 7 near Greenview. “They were right outside the window a couple of nights, but I haven’t seen them in a month or two,” Duncan said. He speculated the bears may have smelled some sweet feed that was stored in his mud room. MDC has not confirmed any cub sightings.
The few bears in the area that MDC is keeping an eye on may be developing a fondness for garbage. The department says people who know or suspect they have a bear in the neighborhood should police their trash cans and make sure dumpsters are secured. It is also a good idea to raise bird feeders a little higher than usual and to not leave large quantities of dog or cat food out overnight. Of course, as with any wildlife, it is best not to feed bears.
“Let ‘em do their thing,” Brown said. Bears that become accustomed to humans as a source of food become bolder and often have to be destroyed. Nuisance bears are seldom relocated successfully; once they form the habit, they will continue to seek out human habitations for the easy pickings.
The black bear is by nature an omnivore; it will eat either meat or vegetable matter. As much as 85% of the black bear’s diet is vegetable matter. The majority of the meat in its diet comes from insects and larvae or from scavenging and taking kills from other predators. The species comparatively large size makes it capable of dominating most other predators and scavengers. Black bears will hunt fawns in the spring time, but seldom kill adult deer and even less frequently kill livestock. When they do attack livestock, they prefer smaller animals such as sheep, goats and pigs. Black bears are quite fond of honey, and have caused problems for commercial apiaries. They have also been known to raid orchards and other food crops.
The fierce reputation of bears belongs more to the grizzly than the black bear. Attacks on humans are rare, and are more often motivated by hunger than by territoriality or defense of young, in contrast to grizzlies. Because of this and their smaller size relative to the grizzly, black bears are often more easily fought off in the case of an attack on humans, and the resulting injuries are less severe. Although human fatalities are not unheard of, they are extremely rare.
While MDC can only confirm the presence of young males, Mike Duncan is not the only person who believes he has seen a mother bear with a cub or cubs. Jim Paben of Omaha, Neb. says has heard of numerous bear sightings on the West side of the Lake between the 31 and 44 Mile Markers. “I had no idea there were bears here!” he said.
He was probably not alone in that, but as bears seem to be returning to their old habitats in central Missouri, more Lake residents may find to their surprise that they have a new, though somewhat mischievous, neighbor.