A Black Bear sow, spotted in Forsyth, Mo., in the southwest part of the state. (Noppadol Paothong/Missouri Department of Conservation)

The black bear population is bouncing back in Missouri. And with its return comes the state’s first-ever black bear hunting season.

The limited hunting season is the result of years of research and development of regulatory framework by the Missouri Department of Conservation. Hunters are excited about the challenge and new experience of black bear hunting, which will also help with population control.

“It’s probably going to be the hardest hunt I’ve ever done in my life,” said Thomas Cash, 46, a hunter from Webster County in southern Missouri. “And being part of the initial season, and being able to harvest a bear during the historic season, will be amazing.”

The season, limited to Missouri residents, will run from Oct. 18-27 — or until the quota for each of the three hunting zones is met. The online permit application is open until May 31. Permits will be selected through random lottery, with at least 10% of permits going to landowners. A maximum of 40 black bears can be hunted during the 2021 season, out of an estimated population of 800.

Developing the regulations around the limited hunting season was a long process involving staff and public input, said Laura Conlee, black bear biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Black bear sightings map. Courtesy of the Missouri Department of Conservation.

“We looked at the population under different circumstances, under different harvest scenarios, and what would be the impact in terms of growth rate,” Conlee said. “We wanted to allow hunters opportunity while still allowing for continued growth of the populations.”

The department held four open houses in July 2019 that took comments from 700 people. Out of the respondents, 87% supported a highly regulated hunting season, believing it to be the best way to manage the bear population and an opportunity to get outdoors and create memories.

Thirteen percent of the respondents did not support the black bear hunting season because they did not support hunting, did not believe the number of bears was accurate or thought the Conservation Department should deal with existing conflicts with bears reported by humans before having a hunting season. 

“I kind of wish we had waited a little bit longer for the bear hunting season,” said Brandon Butler, a 42-year-old hunter in Boone County in central Missouri. “But I recognize that is my opinion and I am fully invested in the science the department has, and I believe in the department making the right decision.”

Why hunt black bears?

Butler feels a primal connection squaring off against a bear that is different from hunting prey animals. He has killed bears in Ontario and British Columbia.

“Bears are just a magical creature,” Butler said. “They’re elusive, they are often at the top of their food chain.”

Butler said bears are his favorite animal and he’s glad to see them return to Missouri, as well as to help conservation through hunting.

“The idea is doing not only what is best for the bear, but the entire ecosystem,” he said. 

If he were to kill a black bear, he would use the meat for food, preserve the hide, keep the skull and render the fat for cooking. Butler says he would love to prepare roasted bear and bear sausages to serve to friends while watching a Chicago Bears game. 

“I would use it socially to introduce people to the idea of hunting and conservation being intertwined,” Butler said.

Cash from Webster County agrees. He has been hunting deer, turkey, coyotes and bobcats since childhood. He loves hunting for sport but also is passionate about controlling the wildlife population.

Cash has had several run-ins with bears on his property. In the spring, he sees about five bears a month. Many people nearby think the bears are cute and feed them, he said.

“One night we lost over $6,000 of beehives, and then we had one (bear) responsible for our dog getting killed,” he said. “If we could put a little bit of fear in them and control the population. My biggest concern is letting them know that being next to humans is not safe.”

When controlling for the black bear population, the Missouri Department of Conservation has to think of how much the land can support bears, but also how much humans will tolerate human-bear interactions, Conlee the biologist said.

Now is the time of year when bear sightings start to increase. Hungry bears will get into food sources like bird feeders, trash cans, pet food and grease traps on grills.

Not leaving out food is the best way to avoid human-bear conflict, according to the Conservation Department.

Hunting black bears also presents a compelling challenge for sportsmen.

Bears are nomadic in the fall and can travel several miles in a day, Cash said. Since Missouri doesn’t allow baiting bears with food, hunters will follow bear sightings, scat, tracks and food sources like nuts and fruits. 

“You’re going to have to have a lot of luck, a lot of woodsmanship and a lot of skill to be able to pattern that target and get them in range,” Cash said.

If he is lucky enough to kill a bear this fall, he’ll use all of the meat for food and have a mount created to commemorate it.

“I try to show all animals a degree of respect to be sure they’re not wasted,” he said.

How black bears came back from ‘local extinction’ in Missouri

In the last 50 years, the growth of the bear population in Missouri has been natural.

“The population has high survival rates and high reproduction rates,” Conlee said. “So all of that combined with available habitat just leads to that growing bear population.”

It hasn’t always been this way. Although bears were historically common in the forested parts of Missouri, unrestricted killing and large-scale habitat changes decimated the black bear population. 

By the early 1900s, people thought black bears were extinct in Missouri, Conlee said, though genetic testing shows there was still a small population in a remote part of the Ozarks.

“Black bears are part of Missouri’s natural biodiversity,” Conlee said. “They do serve some important ecosystem functions.”

Black bears are roving omnivores, and as they eat plants and berries, they help disperse seeds over long distances.

They also help decompose forest matter.

“In the summer months when insects are abundant, they will actually go through and rip apart decomposing logs in search of insects,” Conlee said. “They just kind of create that natural disturbance on the forest floor.”

Two black bear cubs. Courtesy of the Missouri Department of Conservation.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission started reintroducing black bears from Minnesota into the wild. As the Arkansas population expanded, it combined with Missouri’s remaining black bears, leading to today’s population, Conlee said.

In 2008, the Missouri Department of Conservation started its Black Bear Management Plan and set up experiments to learn about the growing black bear population.

“At that point in time, it was clear we had an established population in the state, but we didn’t know the specifics of the population,” Conlee said. “How it was growing, what were the habitat needs and things like that.”

The department started to track black bear sightings by residents in the state. It also started a research study to estimate the population using barbed wire snares.

“These are basically barbed wire corrals that you set up in the middle of the woods,” Conlee said. “You put a small, scented trap in the middle of the woods in that corral so when the bear passes that barbed wire, it leaves hair. And within that hair is DNA.”

The department used the DNA it gathered to estimate the bear population at 300 to 350. But it still didn’t know how quickly the bear population was growing, so it started another study focusing on reproduction and survival.

It put tracking collars on female bears and followed them to their winter dens. Researchers counted the bear cubs and recorded how many cubs and females survived at the end of the following year.

Based on the research, the department knows there are about 800 bears in the state and the population is growing about 9% each year — a level that can sustain a limited hunting season.

The department is requiring bear hunters to submit a tooth from the bears they kill, from which they will be able to get the age of the animal and adjust the population model for the following year.

“It’s a conservation success story that the bear population has grown enough to sustain hunting,” Conlee said. “It’s a testament to residents of this state and the conservation ethics that come with habitat management.”

Butler said he’s excited to be living at a point in history where species like the black bear are making a comeback in Missouri.

“More than 100 years ago, we expatriated these species from their landscape and that’s wrong,” he said. “Now, with the Missouri Department of Conservation, we’re correcting those ills we have done on wildlife.”

If you want to join the bear hunt

Hunting permit application period: May 1-31, 2021

400 permits will be selected July 1, through random drawing

Permit cost for those selected: $25

Bear season: Oct. 18-27

Each permit is for one of three specific zones in southern Missouri

Allowed: Archery and firearms equipment 

Not allowed: Baiting and use of dogs 

More information here

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Brittany Callan covers health and environment at The Beacon, and is a Report for America corps member. Funding for this reporting was provided in part by the Health Forward Foundation.