The American Black Bear, Ursus americanus, was once abundant in Missouri. Now the species is making a comeback, thanks to the efforts of some conservationists and State Wildlife agencies. They are fascinating animals with complex behaviors requiring more study, but one must always remember they are dangerous, wild animals worthy of our respect. Sportsmen who venture into the wild need to know as much about these apex predators as possible thereby reducing unwanted encounters.
This bear has the ability to adapt and make the best of its environment. It has been known to raid dog food supplies, livestock grain and go through garbage cans with ease. This adaptable bear has proven its ability to live alongside humans, though encounters with humans are rarely positive for the bear. Observing these animals in the wild gives us a clear insight to their behavior. Bears have long been an interest of mine, were my focus of study in college and were a readily available subject during my time with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department as a Wildlife Technician. Observing and working with these bears can be dangerous but rewarding work.
Ursus is from the Latin name for bear. Americanus is the Latinized form of America signifying this species is native to North America. The Black Bear is one of the largest wild mammals in Missouri with a long muzzle and a straight facial profile that differs from its cousin the Brown Bear. They also have medium size rounded ears, short, strong legs and heavy fur. The color phases can include black, brown, cinnamon and blonde, but most bears in Missouri are black. Color is rarely used to identify the species of a bear because all species can have differing color phases.
In Missouri, the Black Bear was abundant in 1850 but settlers began to hunt these creatures and the bear became rare in the state about 1880 and then non-existent up until about 1960. Then efforts in Arkansas to re-introduce the bear were successful and the Black Bear began to extend its range into Missouri and migrate north. This migration has taken the bear into Southern Missouri and reproducing populations exist in there today.
The Black Bear is an omnivore and an opportunist and will eat pretty much anything edible. Grass, berries, fruits, seeds, nuts and roots are the staples of the bear’s diet but they will eat animal foods such as ants, bees, honey, fawns and carrion. This wide range of food sources helps the bear to adapt to changing environments and adapt to human pressure and habitats. I once observed a bear open a can of pork and beans with his teeth, that he had raided from a campsite. He then casually enjoyed the contents as if this were an every day occurrence for him.
Contrary to popular belief, bears are not true hibernators. They will spend the colder parts of the year in a den but can wake and move about on warm days. Females will den earlier than males and bear their young during the winter. Most females have one cub, but multiple births are also common. Most leave their dens in April and spend much of their time eating and replacing body fats lost during the winter. It is hard to accurately determine the sex of a bear in the wild unless there are cubs by the female’s side. Males will never have cubs along side as they are mostly solitary.
Arkansas has a hunting season for bears that varies by zone. Their populations are stable enough to allow hunting. Missouri does not have an established season yet because the population has not been determined, but efforts are ongoing through the Missouri Department of Conservation to count these bears in order to better manage them.
However, if hunting Black Bear is on your list of things to do, many western states and Canadian Provinces allow hunting. It is best if you are not an experienced hunter to hire a guide. Guides know the area and habits and can put you in the area of the biggest bears. Many states allow hunting over bait. Bait is placed in an area inhabited by bears and the hunter is placed nearby and waits for a shot.
Another method is the glass and stalk. A good pair of binoculars is essential for this type of hunting. The hillsides are glassed until a bear is spotted and then a stalk is ensued to get you closer to the bear and set up for a shot. This works best in wide open areas, mountainsides, clear cuts and burned areas. This takes a great deal of skill, hunting knowledge and patience but rewards can be great. Black Bears have poor eyesight but have very keen hearing and a sense of smell. The glass and stalk method requires a knowledge of the landscape, terrain, wind direction and skill in moving to the bear undetected. It is essential to study the game rules and laws of the particular state or province you are hunting in as they vary greatly from state to state.
Spring bears have the best coats but usually are underweight. Fall bear fur sometimes is thinner and is not suitable for making rugs or mounts but the weight of the bear is larger and thereby the hunter can harvest more meat.
Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming all have healthy bear populations and hunting seasons. The western bears tend to be larger but some eastern bears can rival their western kin. When hunting in areas that also have Grizzly Bears, it is very important to know the difference between the two species. Grizzlies tend to be larger and have a more rounded dish shaped face and their ears are shaped different than the Black Bears. Many western state’s game and fish agencies have websites that have visual tests hunters can take before going on their trip to help differentiate these bears. Wyoming Game and Fish has a good example of an online visual test with immediate results and score of the test.
Weapon choice can vary, but a long, flat shooting rifle is essential in the west. 300 Mag. are common bear guns but other calibers work as well, but the rifle needs to be powerful enough to penetrate the tough hide of the bear and have enough knockdown power to kill in one shot. No one wants to trail a wounded bear into the thicket. Shot placement is vital to a kill shot on bears. Just behind the shoulder, mid-chest, when the front leg is extended in a step works best. This placement ensures a quick, humane kill and helps to avoid the dreaded tracking of a wounded bear. It is always best to carry a sidearm for close encounters and hunt with a partner to ensure maximum safety. I was proud to harvest a record bear in Oregon that scored high enough and was large enough to be included in Boone and Crocket Book and the Oregon State Game Record Book in 2006.
Equipment lists for hunting bear can be extensive depending on your trip. Camping in bear country has special considerations with food storage and camp cleanliness. It is essential to take precautions in camp to avoid an unwanted encounter with a bear in the dark. When hunting in an area where you are no longer the top of the food chain it is best to be bear aware.
Some important items for hunting bear are:
1. A license for the area you are hunting.
2. Map and compass, GPS.
3. Binoculars and camera.
4. Food and water.
5. Survival and First Aid kit.
6. Rifle, sidearm and ammo.
7. Sharp knife.
Plan for the worst and be prepared for most anything. Hunting in a wilderness setting can be exciting but dangerous.
Bears are fascinating animals that deserve our respect when we enter their habitat. Their populations are on the rise in Missouri and surrounding states. All sportsmen and outdoors enthusiasts need to arm themselves with information about the Black Bear. They can be dangerous animals when cornered, wounded or frightened. Be aware of your surroundings at all times and be on the lookout for fresh sign from these large animals. Harvesting a bear can bring great pride to the hunter and can be the source of many stories told around the campfire for years to come. Observing these creatures in the wild can be thrilling so Be Safe and Be Bear Aware.