Missouri's black bear population is growing, sparking an increase in sightings and incidents that have resulted in intervention like the capture July 11 of a young black bear near Range Line Road in Joplin.
Laura Conlee, a biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation who specializes in fur bearing animals, said the department just this month posted a new estimate of the bear population at 540 to 840 within the state. That's a climb from the agency's baseline estimate seven years ago of 350.
The 2-year-old black bear that was captured here was taken after it had raided residential properties repeated times despite efforts of the residents, aided by advice from the department, to install electric fences and shoot the bear with rubber bullets to try to get it to move on. After it was captured, the department euthanized the bear because it had demonstrated that it was habituated to humans and human food.
"With this bear, it had been hanging around Joplin about two weeks. The bear had been pretty persistent in going after human-associated foods, beehives and pet food and things like that," Conlee said.
Asked if the bear could have been released in the wild elsewhere in the state, Conlee said, "We don't relocate problem bears. A bear that visits chicken coops and other human-associated foods, regardless of where you put that bear, they will seek out those types of food. If you put them in the wild, often those bears try to return" to human-inhabited areas.
The Joplin bear is one of four that the Missouri Department of Conservation has euthanized since 2015.
"A lot of the reason there aren't more killed is because MDC will work with landowners to try to find out what is luring the bears and then help them find ways to deter the bear. In many cases the bears move on," Conlee said. But in this case, those actions did not work.
Though many bears are deterred, an occasional bear will escalate its efforts to seek out human food, which was the case with the Joplin bear. They will begin breaking into buildings to seek out food if they don't find it in the outdoors. "We don't want bears being so comfortable that they spend all their time in backyards," Conlee said.
It also would not have been accepted at an animal sanctuary, said Hannah Wherry, a wildlife biologist at Turpentine Creek Wildlife Sanctuary in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.
"We are battling a different problem rescuing captive-born cats and bears. So we don't have funding or space to rescue wild animals," Wherry said.
She said it is up to public wildlife agencies such as the Missouri Department of Conservation to use their policies and experience to decide whether to relocate or euthanize a bear. If a pesky bear continues to plague humans and does not return to the wild on its own, then agencies have to take action to protect public safety, she said.
Turpentine officials agreed to rescue one wild bear from Florida one time because it had attacked a woman who had come between the bear and her cubs.
"But you are taking them away from freedom and a life they deserve in the wild" by incarcerating them, unlike captive-born bears that have not experienced life in the wild, Wherry said.
About 10,000 tigers, lions and other big cats as well as bears and other animals are in private captivity. "So if we rescued wild bears, we would not have any space to rescue the other animals that are looking for a forever home," Wherry said. "It is not easy. There are thousands and thousands of cases a year."
A spokesman for Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield said there are two rescue bears housed there but the zoo had to be granted a permit from the Missouri Department of Conservation to keep them.
Black bears were declared extinct in Missouri in the 1920s after losing a large part of their natural range through land conversion to settlement, agriculture and timber harvest. Conlee said Arkansas wildlife authorities reintroduced black bears in the 1950s and 1960s and some have spread to Missouri.
As it became evident bears were living in Missouri, conservation officials decided to launch a study because the number was unknown.
"We know it is a healthy population and growing" now, Conlee said. Some female bears have been collared in recent years, and, as a result, "reproductive levels are where we would expect them to be."
The bear population is spreading across southern Missouri as young bears disperse from their mothers and wander a large territory.
"We have a core bear range considered to be the forested areas south of I-44," Conlee said. "The highest density are south of Missouri Highway 60. We are starting to see more frequent bears around the Lake of the Ozarks and in forested areas south and west of St. Louis in Jefferson and Washington counties."