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Bear-hunting season has begun in Missouri. Here’s what you need to know

A Black Bear sow in Forsyth, Missouri.
Missouri Department of Conservation
A Black Bear sow in Forsyth, Missouri.

This is only the third year in Missouri’s modern history that hunters can get permits to shoot black bears. The species was nearly driven out of the state a century ago, but have rebounded in the last few decades thanks to conservation efforts. The 10-day hunt is capped at 40 bears so it doesn't hurt population growth.

Hunters across Missouri will take to the woods this week to hunt the state’s newest, and perhaps most dangerous, legal game.

Two years ago, the Missouri Department of Conservation allowed bear hunting for the first time, following decades of work to rebuild the state’s population – which collapsed and almost went locally extinct in the early 20th century, before enjoying a significant rebound.

Here’s what you need to know about Missouri’s bear hunting season.

When can you hunt bears in Missouri?

Missouri’s bear hunting season begins Monday, Oct. 16 and runs through Wednesday, Oct. 25.

This is the third year of legal, regulated bear hunting in Missouri modern history, since it began in 2021. Missouri hunters have reported killing 20 bears over the first two years.

How can you participate in Missouri’s bear hunting season?

Each year, the Missouri Department of Conservation issues 400 hunting permits by lottery. In the first year, more than 6,300 hunters applied, and since then numbers have held steady at around 5,500.

It costs $10 to apply for a permit and another $25 if your number is drawn. The lottery closes in the spring before the fall season.

Killing a black bear out of season or without a permit in Missouri is a misdemeanor, carrying a fine between $10,000-15,000.

Nate Bowersock, a biologist at the Missouri Department of Conservation who specializes in black bears and other fur-bearing game animals, says that bear hunting application and permit fees have generated over $65,000 for their general fund each year and go towards operating expenses.

Even if you land a permit, you can’t just walk into the woods with a rifle. Bear hunting is only allowed south of the Missouri River, an area broken up into three Bear Management Zones.Each zone has its own harvest quota, from five to 20 bears, depending on the number of bears found there, to keep the harvest evenly distributed.

There’s a statewide season cap of 40 bears total, and the season ends automatically when that limit is reached. The director of the conservation department can also end hunting early if a zone reaches 80% of its quota.

Missouri Department of Conservation wildlife biologist Laura Conlee conduct a black bear cub survey during early spring season in Willow Spring, Missouri.
Noppadol Paothong
/
Missouri Department of Conservation
Missouri Department of Conservation wildlife biologist Laura Conlee conduct a black bear cub survey during early spring season in Willow Spring, Missouri.

James Lee, from St. Louis, is going bear hunting for the first time this year. He said he was happy to snag one of the state’s few permits, calling it a "once-in-a-maybe-lifetime hunt."

This year, lottery applicants had roughly a 7% chance of being drawn.

“If you were to take several hundred [bears], well, we may not be hunting bear five years from now, so I don’t mind if it’s more exclusive,” he said.

Ahead of the season, Lee said he’s spent days scouting in the woods in St. Francis and Dent Counties, where he plans to hunt, and talked with experts in Alaska to prepare.

Are bears common in Missouri?

Black bears, the only kind of bear found in Missouri, were abundant at the time of European settlement. According to the Missouri Department of Conservation, heavy, unregulated hunting in the 19th century decimated the population, and by the mid-20th century they were presumed to be extirpated, or locally extinct, from the state.

In 1958, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission began a campaign to reintroduce bears by capturing hundreds of them in Minnesota and Canada and releasing them into the wilds of Arkansas.

The Department of Conservation says that Missouri’s present-day population is descended from bears that wandered across the border from Arkansas, along with small pockets of bears that lived undetected in remote parts of Missouri.

As a result, since the 1960s, the Missouri bear population has rebounded while being protected from hunting — killing a bear still carries heavy penalties outside of the regulated season.

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Now, most bears are concentrated in the Ozark Mountains, south of I-44, but they’ve been sighted in over 90% of Missouri’s 115 counties, including as far north as Albany.

Black bears are classified as a species of “least concern” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, meaning it is not threatened or in danger of extinction.

Why does Missouri allow bear hunting and how will it affect the bear population?

In contrast to some of the other U.S. states that allow bear hunting, Missouri’s hunt is strictly recreational. In New Jersey, for instance, bear hunting is intended to bring populations down in response to high populations and human encounters.

“We established our bear hunting season to be all about opportunity,” Bowersock says. “We're not using it as a management tool to control the population.”

Missouri currently estimates it has a bear population of around 900, and is growing at an annual rate of 9%. And Bowersock says the hunt is carefully designed to have no effect on that growth target — the Department of Conservation is estimating that bear populations will roughly double over the next 10 years.

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While that might sound like a lot, Bowersock says those bear numbers shouldn’t worry anyone. He says that bears are most often drawn to people and their garbage by necessity when there’s less natural food available in their habitat.

But he added “there isn’t any science to suggest that” thinning bear populations through hunting “would reduce human-bear conflicts.”

So far, Missouri has yet to hit its maximum quota for bears during the hunting season. In 2021, hunters only killed 12 bears, and just eight in 2022.

What’s different about this year’s bear hunting season?

 Black bears live in heavily wooded areas. Reintroduction efforts in Arkansas have increased their numbers in Missouri.
Missouri Department of Conservation
Black bears live in heavily wooded areas. Reintroduction efforts in Arkansas have increased their numbers in Missouri.

While Missouri’s rules and regulations for bear hunts haven’t changed from previous years, the external conditions have.

In 2022, Bowersock says Missouri saw a lower-than-average number of reports of human-bear encounters: just 37, down from 86 in 2021 and 98 in 2020.

Bowersock says this is because many bears emerged from hibernation last spring in good health after a mild winter and abundant food the fall before.

That might be different this year, Bowersock says, because of changing conditions in Missouri’s woodlands. He speculates that, because this year’s acorn crop was less abundant due to drought, hunters might come across more bears than last years, when acorns were plentiful.

Acorns and other tree nuts, which are rich in protein and fat, are a very important staple food for bears and can influence their movement. In a year with a good acorn yield, bears can stay deep in the woods eating nuts and fattening up for the winter.

But when food is thin, bears have to wander further afield searching for food, increasing their chances of encounters with people, including hunters. Bowersock says that wild fruits like persimmons are still in decent supply this year, though.

“These alternative foods other than acorns that they're seeking are not as evenly distributed, say, as the acorns were last year,” says Bowersock, “and so the bears will have to move more often to find the foods they need.”

Weather also makes a big difference in how many bears are hunted. Bowersock says that thunderstorms during the initial 2021 season led to hunters spending a lower amount of time in the woods.

How is bear hunting in Missouri different than in other states?

More than 30 U.S. states currently hold bear hunting seasons — including Arkansas, Kentucky, New York, New Jersey, Minnesota, California and Oregon — but hunting regulations in Missouri are somewhat more stringent than most. (Kansas does not have a bear hunting season, and they cannot be killed without reason.)

In Missouri, hunters cannot use bait, only lone bears can be hunted, and there is a relatively low harvest cap (which has never been reached).

Hunters also must be Missouri residents, must take a training course, and must recover all edible parts of a bear.

By contrast, Iowa, where bears generally don’t live year-round, does not protect the species and they can be killed legally at any time in any manner. Illinois, where bears are not usually found, outlawed killing bears except in self-defense in 2015.

What are the criticisms of Missouri’s bear hunting system?

Cody Atkinson, Missouri state director for the Humane Society, says that bear hunting should be a method of last resort to address out of control populations that are harming people.

Atkinson says he has doubts about the Department of Conservation’s bear population estimates and worries that hunting could hurt the species’ recovery.

Atkinson draws a bright line between bear hunting and other game like deer or turkey, saying he feels that hunters out for bear are often more interested in taxidermying one than eating it.

“It’s so different than the many hunters in our state who, especially at a time like now when groceries are getting more expensive, are trying to go out and hunt a deer or turkey and put food on the table,” he said. “It’s not so much about the intent as the necessity, and when there are plentiful other options for animals that aren’t as intelligent or as important ecologically, getting back to their regular sustainable populations, it’s quite a bit different.”

Travis Rasmussen is a hunter from Joplin who harvested one of only three bears taken on public land during the state’s first hunt in 2021. He says that, apart from some online comments, he hasn’t encountered much opposition to bear hunting.

Rasmussen attributes this to a widespread cultural acceptance of hunting in Missouri.

“For us around here, it's just normal,” he says.

How is bear hunting different from hunting other kinds of wild game?

Hunters say that bears are more difficult and hit-or-miss than common game like deer or turkey. Deer, which are more plentiful and often travel along established trails, can be hunted by laying in wait in a tree-stand.

Bears, on the other hand, have a lower population density and that means hunters typically have to search them out more actively.

“In Missouri, we can't use bait or attractants, so you pretty much have to rely on the land and knowing–having a good idea–where bears are, and being able to track, through scat and tracks and other signs like bears clawing into dead trees, looking for bugs or digging into the ground,” Rasmussen says.

In 2021, Rasmussen walked seven miles into Mark Twain National Forest before he was able to take down a bear, which he says weighed over 500 pounds. Then he had to drag it back to his truck with the help of a group of friends.

Alex Abramovitz, another Missouri hunter, plans to go to Mark Twain National Forest for this year’s bear season along with a friend who drew a permit in the lottery.

“You gotta cover ground, find what they're feeding on, and once you find that they're fairly patternable, but it's a lot easier said than done,” Abramovitz said. “Deer hunting, you're gonna find signs all over the place, rubs, scrapes, tracks, you know, scat. To find one piece of bear sign is honestly a big deal.”

Abramovitz adds that the best way to eat bear meat is in roasts or burgers. Steaks aren’t quite as good of a meal, since bear meat has to be cooked thoroughly like pork — the parasite trichinella is even more common in bears than in pigs, its best known carrier. (You'll want to cook it to at least an internal temperature of 160 degrees.)

The Missouri Department of Conservation warns that trichinellosis caused by undercooked wild game can cause symptoms like diarrhea, cramps, nausea, vomiting and fever, and symptoms can potentially last for weeks or months.

“I'm excited to see the third hunting season go,” Abramovitz says. “I think it just shows how good conservation can not only provide the restoration of a species, but provide additional opportunities for people to enjoy the outdoors.”

Copyright 2023 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

George Russell