A black bear season could begin as early as the fall of 2021 in Missouri, and the Missouri Department of Conservation is seeking public comment. Michele Skalicky talked with MDC bear biologist, Laura Conlee.
How many bears do you estimate we have in Missouri?
"We estimate that we have between 540 and 840 black bears in the state."
Where are they at in Missouri?
"Generally, our bear population is located south of Interstate 44, and the highest number of bears are really south of Highway 60, so the southern third of the state. And, when we're talking about bear range, we're really talking about the forested areas of the southern part of the state, so kind of those Ozarks forests."
How quickly is the bear population growing?
"Our data suggests that the population is growing at about nine percent annually."
What criteria need to be in place in order for a black bear hunting season to be allowed?
"At this point, we've established a proposed framework, and we are seeking that public input on that proposed framework. And, really, the season that we're proposing is to provide opportunity for Missouri residents to participate in the sustainable harvest of this valuable species."
Is there a certain number you want to be at before you'd allow a black bear hunting season and what about genetics--how does that play into it?
"At this point we don't have population benchmarks established, but as the bear population continues to grow, our management plan sets guidance to established population benchmarks. And, once those population benchmarks are established, hunting would serve as an essential component of that management program."
Can you talk more about the role of hunting in black bear management?
"We established an updated black bear management plan just recently, so the new management plan is posted on the website. And, with that, hunting would be an essential component to bear population management. So, as that bear population grows, we have a lot of available habitat within the state. We're seeing that pretty rapid expansion, so we're seeing bears moving into areas within the state where they haven't been for a number of years. And, so, in terms of regulating that bear population, limited hunting and that specific hunting goals and objectives that would be established through population benchmarks would be used to help drive the population growth rate."
A news release said that a black bear season could begin as early as 2021. What might a black bear hunting season in Missouri look like?
"Right now, what we're proposing would be a 10-day season that would begin the third Monday in October. We would have permit numbers that would be established by the Conservation Commission and harvest quotas for the proposed bear management zones that would be established by the Conservation Commission as well. So, really, what we would be looking at is that potential for a 10-day season, but, if the harvest quotas are achieved, the season would close."
And you said it would be very limited and only Missouri residents would be allowed to take part.
"Correct. Yeah, so we're looking at establishing a limited and highly regulated season, so right now it would only be open to Missouri residents and there would be a $10 application fee to apply for a bear hunting permit, and we're proposing the cost to be $25 for a bear hunting permit."
When might the Conservation Commission vote on a bear hunting season?
"Our process goes as follows: Right now we're in that initial phases of seeking public input on this proposed framework, so once we gather all that input, we'll take all of that into account, establish recommendations for our regulations committee, and then, if those move forward after the regulations committee, in July, the Conservation Commission would see the proposed framework. In September, they would vote on it, at which time there would be another public comment period and then final recommendations would be made to the Conservation Commission in December."
How can the public provide input?
"There's a couple of different ways you can provide input. The easiest way for most folks would be to submit online comments. So, if you go to mdc.mo.gov/bears, there's tons of information, there's details about the proposed framework, there's a short video that describes it and then there's just general bear information there as well. But, there's a link where you can submit public comment, and it's essentially a survey that you can fill out and provide your on the specific details of the framework." (Those without internet access may send comments to: Missouri Department of Conservation, attention: Michele Baumer, P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City, MO, 65102).
I know bears and people sometimes meet up, and humans, a lot of times, are the cause of that. How important is it for people to not leave things out that can attract bears?
"There's a lot that comes into kind of co-existing with bears. Bears are highly adaptable creatures, and they really are attracted to a variety of different types of food sources. And, so, when bears kind of wander through residential areas or maybe come visit homesteads, if they find easy food, they'll take advantage of it, and, so, that can be bird feeders. It could be pet food. It could be trash, and they will often get into that, and bears are long-lived and they have a really good memory, and, so, they may come back and revisit those food sources. So, a lot of what we talk about is really being bear aware, especially if you reside in bear country, but remembering that that population is growing and expanding. We have bears that live around Lake of the Ozarks. We have bears that kind of disperse and wander through some of the St. Louis suburbs every year, and, so, making sure that you don't have those attractants out there for bears is really key to helping keep that bear population wild. So, when bears start getting attracted to those human foods, they'll start to seek it out and then you might start to get some of that nuisance behavior--that problem behavior. So, really making sure you're not providing those attractants to bears, helps keep them wild. There's plenty of natural foods out there, and, as long as they don't have easy access to trash and bird feeders and things like that, they'll use those natural foods."
You said they're long-lived. How long to bears live in the wild?
"Bears can live up to 25 years in the wild, so that's quite a long time, especially for an animal that has that good memory and can be pretty habitual in their patterns, and, so, when they find some of those easy food sources, they might come to the same home year after year, at the same time of year, if they continue to get access to those foods."
Is there anything else you want to add?
"Yeah, so, I think in terms of clarification for the hunting season, right now the hunting season that we're proposing is really to provide that opportunity for harvest. Our bear population's at a level where it can sustain that limited and highly regulated harvest, so providing that opportunity for Missouri residents and then, as that population continues to grow, we'll look to establish those population benchmarks at which time harvest would be an essential component to that population management."
Any idea how many bears would be allowed to be taken or is that something that's still very much under consideration?
"We don't have any quotas or permit numbers established at this point. Right now, we're just seeking that initial comment on that proposed framework. And then, as this moves through the process, we would look to that population model to help determine what permit numbers and quota numbers could look like."