SOUTHEAST MISSOURI (KFVS) - Researchers say Missouri black bears are continuing to thrive and reproduce at a steady pace, and that could mean a return to the hunting that many argue endangered them in the past.
Conservation agent Candice Davis said more black bears have been sighted in the Southeast region including in Perry, St. Francois, and Sainte Genevieve counties.
"It's a slow, steady growth in the bear population," Davis said. "They're not having big litters. They're having one to three cubs a year and not every year. So they're growing, but we do need to be patient."
Bear biologist Laura Conlee leads the Missouri black bear project.
She said the state's bear population was drastically reduced in the late 1800s, early 1900s with unregulated hunting and habitat changes, but gradually the bears that remained started mating with bears that were reintroduced by other states like Arkansas.
"Over the course of the next several decades the number of bear reports started to increase," Conlee said. "It became apparent that we may have an established breeding population here in the state. It wasn't just movement across the border."
Those findings led the Missouri Department of Conservation to start the bear population project which in 2012 estimated that the state had between 300 and 350 black bears.
"These bears are established bears within Missouri, we have a growing population from within," Conlee said. "It's not all bears moving in from another state or anything like that. Now we are trying to determine how quickly that population is growing."
Conlee said they don't have a hard number on where the bear population is now.
But the research group is continuing to track black bears with the help of public sighting reports and the use of GPS collars so they can find dens and collect data on survival rates and reproduction rates.
"We're making sure we have very good sample sizes and we have adequate data in all the aspects that we are looking at so we have very high confidence in the estimates that come out," Conlee said.
Biologists want to get the black bear population up to 500 statewide. If that happens, they'll start talking about the possibility of opening a limited hunting season.
"That is a number we're looking for and then we going to figure out what is a hunt going to look like? What would those numbers be?" Davis asked. "Hunting is very important to Missouri, and bears are also important to Missouri. So that perfect balance to manage the health of the species and also to promote hopefully someday a hunting season."
With that growing population comes a growing chance you could come in contact with these wild creatures. If so, Davis said to remember the phrase: "A fed bear is a dead bear."
"The first step is to do our part to not tempt them to come near our area," Davis said. "Anything with a good smell a bear is going to associate with a possible meal so keeping things put away at the campsite not leaving pet food out at home or camping is very important. Securing things in a vehicle where a bear can't get it is best."
Conlee said they will continue collecting data for the bear population project until 2021.