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Black Bears Back in Missouri after Successful Reintroduction Program

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Jul 19, 2013 04:59 PM EDT
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A three-month-long bear hunting season began Monday in Maine, bringing with it a wave of rekindled criticism against the state's liberal bear-hunting laws. (Photo : CREDIT: Mike Bender/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

A successful reintroduction program is being credited with the resurgence of black bears in the Ozark forest in southern Missouri, according to a joint study by the University of Missouri, Mississippi State University and the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Because of unregulated hunting and habitat loss, black bear populations tanked in Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma in the 1920s. But thanks to the black bear reintroduction program that started in the 1950s in Arkansas, there are now hundreds of black bears in the region's hilly forests. It's welcome news to the state of Missouri, which has grown accustomed to the only bear in the state being the one on its state flag.

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But now the state is faced with the new task of reeducating a public not accustomed to forests full of bears on how to co-exist with the creatures. The Missouri Department of Conservation warns that while the black bear population in the state is still small, outdoor recreationists and homeowners should take precautions in the Ozark forest to avoid attracting bears.

"Black bears normally do not attack humans, but they will ransack picnic baskets, tear through garbage bags or even enter buildings looking for food," said Lori Eggert, associate professor of biological sciences at University of Missouri. "Although some Missourians may be concerned, the return of black bears to Missouri is actually a good sign. It means parts of the state's forests are returning to a healthy biological balance after nearly two centuries of intensive logging and exploitation."

Using genetic data, Eggert and her colleagues were able to trace the origins of the Missouri black bears back to Arkansas, where thousands of black bears now roam.

The bears in Missouri appear to mostly be descendants to a population of bears originally reintroduced to the Ozarks from populations farther north in Minnesota and Canada. However, one surprise from the genetic tracking of the bears was that some of the population did not appear to be descendants of the northern bears, suggesting that a tiny population of black bears was able to survive in the Ozark forests throughout the period of hunting and deforestation that all but eliminated the mammals from the region.

"The larger the gene pool of bears in the region, the healthier the population will be as it recovers," said Eggert. "If they do indeed exist, these remnant populations of black bears may serve as valuable reservoirs of genetic diversity."

If black bear populations in the Show-Me-State continue to rise, it's likely that annual hunting quotas will be established, as is the case in Arkansas to the south, which allows for limited black bear hunting in October and November.

Eggert and her colleagues' research is published in the Journal of Mammalogy.

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