John Schwan wasn't looking for trouble. Neither was a 315-pound black bear that turned up on his property in Madison County. But somehow the bear got the idea that one of Schwan's outbuildings was a bruin cafeteria, and after that it was all downhill.
Schwan called the Missouri Department of Conservation May 15 to report what he took to be bear damage. Conservation Agent Scott Bumgardaner confirmed his suspicions.
"It had to be a bear," said Bumgardaner. "It had ripped two huge boards off the shed to get at some livestock feed."
Bumgardaner advised nailing the boards back in place and removing the tempting foodstuffs. Schwan did so, but around dusk the next day the bear returned.
"Mr. Schwan heard his dog barking and when he went out the bear was coming down the road toward the shed," said Bumgardaner. "He got a .22 caliber rifle and tried to scare it off by yelling, but the bear didn't run. Then his dog made a move toward the bear and it got aggressive. He shot it once and his dog attacked. He said he was afraid the bear would kill his dog, so he shot it three more times."
The wounded bear ran into the nearby woods, and Schwan called Bumgardaner again to report the incident. The conservation agent was unable to find the bear that evening. The next day they found bear's carcass beneath a tree in which it had apparently taken refuge.
Conservation officials originally estimated the bear's weight at 400 pounds. When weighed, however, it tipped the scales at 315 pounds.
"I wish he hadn't shot it, but I believe he honestly was scared," said Bumgardaner.
"He did everything right," said Resource Scientist Dave Hamilton, the Conservation Department's bear expert. "He called us the first time he had trouble with the bear and he called after shooting it. He tried to remove the material that was attracting the bear. It was damaging his property, and he felt threatened."
Hamilton said he wishes circumstances had permitted the Conservation Department to live-trap the bear and remove it to a remote location. He said the agency has had excellent success with this technique in the past. Bears find the experience so terrifying they never want to be near humans again.
Hamilton said the Madison County incident illustrates an old saying among bear biologists â€" "A fed bear is a dead bear." Bears that receive handouts, deliberately or accidentally, lose their fear of humans. That sets them on a course that leads to conflict with people and, eventually, the bear's death.
The black bear is North America's smallest bear species. Missouri's population is estimated at 300 to 500 individuals. Most are young males that have dispersed from Arkansas, which has a well-established and expanding bear population. The mature male bear killed in Madison County was an exception. Most bears seen in Missouri weigh around 100 pounds.
Most of Missouri's bears are found in the east-central Ozarks and the southwestern corner of the state.
Spring is a lean time for bears, which are inactive and eat little if any food during the winter. They subsist on succulent vegetation, roots, seeds, tree bark, berries, insects, carrion, rodents and other small animals until fall. Then they gorge on their dietary mainstay, acorns, to build a reserve of fat that carries them through the winter.
Prevention is the key to avoiding bear problems. The most important preventive measure is not leaving anything edible where bears can get at it. Bears often get their first taste of human handout in the form of pet food left outdoors or livestock food in unsecured containers. Bird feeders also are attractive to bears," Hamilton said.
"If a bear visits your home or business, get indoors and make noise by banging pots. If it won't leave, call a conservation agent or local law-enforcement agency for help.
Attacks by black bears (the only kind found in Missouri) are rare. None have taken place in Missouri in recent history. Still, bears can react aggressively if startled or cornered.
Most black bear attacks occur because the animal is frightened or defending its cubs against a perceived threat. Black bears are excellent climbers, so climbing a tree is no means of escape.
If you encounter a bear, stay calm. Don't show fear, run or make sudden movements. If the bear hasn't seen you, speak in a gentle tone to let the bear know you are there and back away slowly.
Bears' poor vision sometimes makes it difficult for them to identify humans, even at close range, unless they can smell them. In such situations, bears often stand on their hind legs and lift their noses high in the air. This is not a threat. The bear is just trying to use its keen sense of smell to identify an intruder. Speak softly to the animal and calmly move away.
Avoid making a bear feel cornered. Black bears seldom attack if they can retreat. On a trail, step off the trail on the downhill side and slowly leave the area.
If you see a cub, move slowly and calmly away from it. Be on the lookout for other cubs and avoid getting near them, which could trigger adult bears' protective parental instincts.
If a black bear attacks, fight back. Black bears have been driven away when people fought back with rocks, sticks and even bare hands.