An untagged bear found dead along a Missouri road this week could tell us about population trends

Sara Karnes
Springfield News-Leader
MDC announces the state’s first black-bear hunting season is slated for this coming fall, Oct. 18–27. It will be limited to Missouri residents and restrict bear hunting to designated areas of southern Missouri.

Many drivers are familiar with seeing animals that were unfortunately hit by vehicles and left on the side of the road. Armadillos, skunks and deer are all fairly common.

Drivers may not be used to seeing a dead bear.

Earlier this week, conservation officials received calls about a larger mammal that had been struck. 

A bear was seen dead on the eastbound side of James River Freeway between I-44 and Highway MM early Monday morning. Joshua Wisdom, wildlife damage control biologist for Missouri Department of Conservation, quickly set out to assess the situation.

“It’s rare for a regular car to hit a bear and not know it,” Wisdom said. “My guess is it probably got hit by a semi or a trailer of a semi.”

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The conservation department has ongoing research of black bears in Missouri, and one of the first things Wisdom did once he arrived was look for a pit tag, which is like a microchip a dog would get at a veterinarian’s office. 

“When we’ve had juvenile bears or cubs that we’ve worked in the den, or even adults that we’ve trapped, anywhere that we handle a bear, at the very least, we try to pit tag it,” Wisdom said.

Using a magnetic wand, Wisdom looked for a pit tag that would trace the bear back to where it came from, how old it was and more valuable information.

He didn’t find a tag. 

Wisdom can’t place where the bear came from or which female it was born to, but that doesn’t mean information is wasted.

“We’ve never touched it and, obviously, that’s part of the growing population,” Wisdom said. “We’re not handling every bear that’s being born, and we know that. This just adds to that. We have new bears showing up all the time.”

Dead bear points to growing population

The bear was probably around one-and-a-half to two years old, probably being born two winters ago. It’s around this age that juvenile bears are pushed away from their mothers or the bears who raise them.

“The males get kicked off, and the reason they get kicked off is so she can start breeding again,” Wisdom said. “If that young male, even though he’s a year-and-a-half, if he was around her when she was trying to get bred by an older male, honestly, that older male might kill him.”

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Younger males usually disperse in the summertime as they search to establish new territory. 

Although Missouri is called bear country, the number of these mammals varies from each Bear Management Zone. This bear was in Zone 1. There are an estimated 800 bears in the state, Wisdom said. 

With most of the state’s black bears found south of the Missouri River and primarily south of Interstate 44, MDC has established three Bear Management Zones (BMZ) in southern Missouri. Permit and harvest quotas are established for each BMZ.

“They’re distributed across the landscape, but they’re not evenly distributed,” Wisdom said. “For whitetail deer, Bears in Missouri might have a 50-square mile home range.”

Missouri’s bear population is growing about nine percent a year. 

“Within the next 10 years, we’re expecting our population to currently double,” Wisdom said. “There’ll be more next year than there are this year. It’s certainly something we’re going to have to learn to live with.

“It’s kind of the new normal, or whatever phrase you want to say, but they’re not going away."

What comes next?

The carcass of a bear attracts a lot of attention, Wisdom said. Aside from research purposes, conservation officials work fast to gather the animal for safety reasons.

“We want to make sure that bear is actually dead and not wounded or crawling through a neighborhood,” Wisdom said.

In some situations when bears are killed by a vehicle, Wisdom said the bodies can be assessed for research possibilities, such as the skull being saved for educational purposes.

Missouri has a growing population of about 800 black bears, according to Missouri Department of Conservation.

“In this particular instance, this carcass had been pretty banged up when it got run over,” he said. 

The skull, jaw and legs were cracked. The bear’s fur was also in the process of molting. 

“In this case, there was nothing that could be saved,” Wisdom added.

The body was disposed of by the agency’s incinerator the same day it was recovered, Wisdom said.

Being bear aware

“A fed bear is a dead bear.”

That common phrase is said among conservation officials, and Wisdom reminded Missouri residents that even unintentional feedings can have dire consequences.

“If you have trash or bird feeders or garbage, even if they’ve only gotten into it once and you know it was a bear, we really need to get that picked up,” Wisdom said. 

Sara Karnes is an Outdoors Reporter with the Springfield News-Leader. Follow along with her adventures on Twitter and Instagram @Sara_Karnes. Got a story to tell? Email her at skarnes@springfi.gannett.com.