WEBSTER COUNTY - Nearly three years ago, Missouri Department of Conservation resource scientist Jeff Beringer and other researchers set out to collect data on Missouri's growing black bear population - the study is appropriately titled The Missouri Black Bear Project. The goals were to monitor and manage black bears for reasons of conservation and safety by studying their movement patterns and reproduction.
Forty-eight bears later, Beringer and others are closer to developing management strategies for bears in Missouri while educating the public on these wild animals.
"The more we know, the better we can manage the bears and the people," Beringer said.
On Tuesday morning, a group of resource scientists added the latest black bear to the study by snaring a 200+ lb. female in a large cylindrical container. As they've done so many times before, Beringer and his colleagues cautiously approached the container and tranquilized the bear using a small syringe. After ten minutes, the bear was unconscious and the scientists carefully dragged her seemingly-lifeless body out of the container and placed her on a large red tarp.
The team immediately began examining the bear and discovered that this wasn't her first time being tagged; she was caught and tagged two years prior. Just like well-trained tailors, the scientists used measuring tape to determine the length of her limbs; like dentists, they examined her teeth; and like fight trainers, they gathered around and weighed her using a makeshift scale. While Beringer and a few others conducted the physical analysis, one young man transcribed all of the information on a stat sheet.
Beringer gets up and heads to his pick-up truck, which is parked nearly 20 yards away from the bear's resting tarp. He returns with something the bear lost: a new collar. Attached to the leather strapped collar is a GPS receiver, a VHF transmitter, and drop-off mechanism. This way, scientists affiliated with the study can track the black bears and study their movements.
"We found bears moving places we didn't think they would...moving distances that are like, 'Wow! Why'd he do that?,'" Beringer said.
With camping expected to increase in the summer months, the resource scientists try and distribute information on Missouri's black bears to make people more "bear aware."
"You don't want to make that bear lose its fear of humans, so it's important that the campers and outdoor enthusiasts make it a negative experience for a bear when they come into your yard or campsite," Beringer said, "and that seems mean, but it keeps them wild."
Although not as many black bears have been spotted in mid-Missouri as they have in southern counties, Columbia's Finger Lakes State Park Superintendent Debbie Newby said leaving food out at campsites is a widespread problem that can be easily curtailed to keep animals away.
"We ask people to put their trash in recyclable bins and dumpsters," Newby said. "That'll help keep critters away from your campsite, because once they come, they'll come again if you leave food out for them."
Aside from conducting they study and transcribing various statistics, Beringer related the excitement he gets out of actually interacting with live bears.
"If you play sports, this is the World Series," Beringer said. "This is a career highlight."
A highlight that has replayed 48 times in Missouri over the past three years.
The scientists make sure to stay with the bears and wait for them to wake up from the tranquilizer. This is important to keep the bear from falling into a body of water and drowning and to keep other animals from preying on a temporarily disabled animal.
After four hours, the groggy bear began to get up and eventually stumbled off into the woods.
"That's why I went into this field," Beringer said. "To me, to put my hands on this wild bear... Who gets to do that? It's cool."
The scientists plan to continue with the Missouri Black Bear Project until their goals for management strategies, conservation and education have been accomplished.
For more information on bear awareness while camping, visit this link on the Missouri Department of Conservation website.