Black Bears Return To Missouri
July 20, 2013

Missouri Seeing The Return Of The Black Bear

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

By the 1920s, unregulated hunting and habitat loss had wiped out the majority of black bears, Ursus americanus, in Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. The only bears known to live in Missouri for nearly a century were on the state flag, or in captivity.

A reintroduction program, conducted during the 50s and 60s in Arkansas, has created a resurgence of bears. Now hundreds amble through the forests of southern Missouri, according to a joint study by University of Missouri, Mississippi State University, and Missouri Department of Conservation biologists.

The research team warns that although the population is still small, precautions should be taken by outdoor recreationists and homeowners in the Ozark forest to avoid attracting bears. The findings of their study were recently published in the Journal of Mammalogy.

"Black bears normally do not attack humans, but they will ransack picnic baskets, tear through garbage bags or even enter buildings looking for food," said Lori Eggert, associate professor of biological sciences in MU's College of Arts and Science. "Although some Missourians may be concerned, the return of black bears to Missouri is actually a good sign. It means parts of the state's forests are returning to a healthy biological balance after nearly two centuries of intensive logging and exploitation."

The team traced the bears in Missouri to Arkansas using genetic fingerprints. Thousands of bears now roam the woods of Arkansas, with the majority appearing to be descendants of the bears originally reintroduced to the region from populations in Minnesota and Manitoba, Canada. Some of the bears in Missouri, however, have genetic signatures that suggested they were not descended from the northern bears. The researchers think that further testing might prove a tiny population of bears survived unnoticed in the Ozark forests after the rest of the bears in Missouri had died out.

"The larger the gene pool of bears in the region, the healthier the population will be as it recovers," said Eggert. "If they do indeed exist, these remnant populations of black bears may serve as valuable reservoirs of genetic diversity."

Eggert notes that should the Missouri population of bears recover sufficiently, officials may someday allow human hunters to stalk the animals. Arkansas' Game and Fish Commission already allows limited bear hunting in October and November.