Missouri is home to a small number of black bears, the only bear species found here. The statewide population is estimated at only 300 to 500 bears.
However, the number is growing slowly, thanks to natural reproduction and immigration from Arkansas.
One of the most useful things for avoiding bear confrontations is knowing where you are likely to see a bear. The Conservation Department has confirmed bear sightings in 61 of the state's 114 counties. However, 90 percent of the state's bears live south of Interstate Highway 44.
"You could see a bear in the northern two-thirds of the state," said Resource Scientist Jeff Beringer. "Atchison, Worth and Lewis counties have recorded at least one sighting. But the odds decrease sharply the farther north you go. For the most part, this is still an Ozarks phenomenon."
Beringer, the Conservation Department's bear specialist, said Ozark County leads the state, with 102 documented bear sightings since the agency began keeping records in 1987. Adjoining Howell and Douglas counties are second and third with 60 and 51 sightings, respectively. Counties with 40 or more sightings include Carter, Christian, Iron, Reynolds, Shannon, Stone and Taney.
The cluster of bear sightings in and around Reynolds County extends north as far as Crawford, Franklin and Washington counties, each of which has produced more than 30 verified reports since 1987.
Missouri's top bear counties also happen to contain the Ozark Trail and many of the state's other popular hiking and camping destinations. While bear sightings remain relatively rare, Beringer said Missourians need to begin making bear awareness part of their outdoor skill set.
"A few years ago, the chances of a backpacker or a mushroom hunter stumbling across a bear were pretty close to zero. That isn't true today. Anyone who spends time outdoors should know how to avoid run-ins with bears and what to do if they do encounter one."
Beringer said chance encounters with bears usually are brief, ending when the bear realizes a human is near and retreats. Bears have a natural fear of humans. However, accidental bear meetings can be dangerous if the bear is startled or cornered or if a person gets between a sow and her cubs.
"Black bears are much more powerful for their size than the average person realizes," he said. "They are unpredictable and extremely dangerous when they feel threatened. They are nothing to mess with."
Bears are keenly aware of their surroundings, so Beringer said one effective way of avoiding surprise meetings is to make noise. Talking with companions works well. So does whistling, singing or fastening a cowbell to your backpack or clothing.
Bears' hearing and sense of smell are excellent, but their eyesight is poor. They sometimes do not recognize humans, even at close range, if the wind is blowing the people's scent away from them. At such times, a bear often rears up on its hind legs. This is not a threat, but an attempt to use its eyes and nose to best advantage.
Beringer said people who see bear that have not seen them yet should leave the area quickly and quietly. If the bear is aware of your presence, Beringer recommends avoiding eye contact, which bears perceive as aggressive behavior. The best thing in this situation is to look down and walk away while speaking in a normal voice.
A bear on a narrow trail may feel cornered. The best strategy here is to step off the trail on the downhill side and leave the area quietly. Do not make sudden movements or run.
When threatened or defending cubs, black bears often make huffing sounds, pop their jaws or beat the ground with their front paws. This is a warning that you are too close. Black bears also make mock charges, rushing at intruders, stopping and then retreating. People who take the hint and withdraw immediately after a mock charge almost always avoid further trouble.
Although attacks by black bears are rare, they do occur. Black bears can run much faster than humans can, and they are excellent climbers. Consequently, fleeing or climbing a tree is pointless. The most effective strategy is to fight back with whatever you have - a knife, a rock, a stick or any other weapon. Black bear attacks have been repelled by people using nothing more than their fists. Striking a bear around the face is most effective. Pepper spray also can stop a bear attack.
Aggressive bears usually are those that have become accustomed to human presence. This most often occurs through intentional feeding. Beringer cautioned against deliberately feeding bears or allowing bears to raid trash, livestock feeders or other human food sources. This puts both people and bears at risk.
If you encounter an aggressive bear, contact conservation office or your local sheriff's department immediately. The Conservation Department has specially trained employees to deal with problem or aggressive bears.
For more information about living with bears, check out the Web site mdc.mo.gov/landown/wild/nuisance/bear/info/ar/info.