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The Missouri Department of Conservation doesn’t really know how many black bears there are in Missouri – but if the current study that is under way is successful, they’re about to find out.
“We’ve said we had a population of 300 to 500 for 10 to 15 years,” said Larry Rieken, wildlife regional supervisor for the Conservation Department. Now MDC is in a project study to determine if those estimates are correct and to also determine if the bear population is growing.
Working closely with a Douglas County landowner, Conservation agents and researchers collected data from a mature female bear last Friday morning. After taking detailed measurements, weighing the animal, taking hair samples and even pulling a tooth, the sow bear was fitted with a GPS tracking collar and released back into the wild to join her three cubs that were seen hanging around the trap after mama was caught.
Young females usually have one cub, then as they get more mature they normally raise two and sometimes three.
Douglas County Conservation Agent Mark Henry said four bears have been caught in the same trap in the same location, about a mile south of the Webster County line in Douglas County. Actually, only three bears were trapped – one was caught a second time.
Two of those bears were collared for the study, Henry said.
To have three cubs is a little out of the ordinary, but certainly not real uncommon, bear biologist Jeff Beringer said.
Beringer heads up the bear project for the Conservation Department, but Henry and wildlife biologist Randall Roy lead this project in Douglas County which is being conducted in a unique cooperative arrangement with the landowner who can actually see the bear trap from his living room window, with the use of a spotting scope.
He called Henry Friday morning to let him know they had a bear trapped, and that set in motion a flurry of activity that actually became an impromptu media event.
The goal of the Department of Conservation is to determine not only numbers of bears in this region, but they also want to know how far they range, where they den up for the winter, and when they go into their winter hiatus.
Henry said it is feasible to believe that Missouri will, at some time in the future, have an open bear season.
Since bears have no real predators, hunting is the best population control, Rieken said.
But before Missouri opens a season on bears, MDC wants to be sure they have all their facts together.
Henry said Missouri doesn’t want to make the same mistake an adjoining state made in opening a season before it is ready.
Beringer said sows den up first, usually in late November, and the boars den later. A hunting season would be set for that period after the females den, so only the males would be taken.
The “sophisticated” bear traps used here are nothing more than 55-gallon drums welded together end-to-end. The traps are baited with the bears’ favorite food –donuts – which are provided locally by Casey’s, Wal-Mart and Town & Country Supermarket from their unsold merchandise. The bears don’t seem to care if the donuts are a little stale.
The barrel trap has a series of holes, about 3-inches in diameter, which not only provide plenty of air for the caged animal but also provide access for the hypodermic tranquilizer that is administered by the biologist.
After about 10 minutes, the bear is usually sedated enough to be removed from the trap. If not, a second shot may be administered.
As soon as the bear is removed from the trap, the eyes are covered with a bandana to prevent injury, and the biologists go to work in a detailed, systematic procedure of obtaining and carefully recording data.
The bear that was studied Friday weighed 170 pounds and was estimated to be around seven years old.
Beringer said they will know exactly how old she is when all the information is analyzed.
Four students from Missouri State University were privileged to participate in the Douglas County event Friday morning. Tyler Stewart is president of The Wildlife Society MSU Student Chapter, and Ashley Gunkle was last year’s president. They were joined by Society members Mat Wilson and John Ward.
One might think the heavy leather collar, holding a GPS device, would be a nuisance to the bear. Biologist Brad Jump said they may fight it for a few days, but they soon get used to it.
Of course there are exceptions.
On one occasion, a sow’s cubs tried to chew the collar off their mother while she was still down from the tranquilizer. And a big 400-pound boar in Webster County didn’t like the thing and with one swipe of his paw it was history.
Once biologists have collected the information they want from the animal, it is left alone to wake up naturally. Agents will watch from a distance to make sure the animal is okay. After a few staggering stumbles, the bear will be fine and will amble off and disappear into its natural habitat.
While working the project in Douglas County Friday, biologists received word that they had a bear in a snare trap in another county, so they hurried off to start the process all over once again.
(Josh Hoppe of the Herald staff contributed to this article)
You can view video from our original story here