The Bear Truth

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Published on: Apr. 2, 2000

Last revision: Nov. 4, 2010

Once upon a time, there were few if any wild black bears in Missouri. If there were any bears living here, they kept themselves well hidden in the deepest recesses of our Ozark woodlands.

Meanwhile, about 40 years ago, our neighbors in Arkansas were involved in a grand experiment. From 1958 to 1968, wildlife officials there restocked 254 Minnesota and Manitoba black bears to join the 30 to 40 Arkansas bears estimated at the time to be roaming the state.

Arkansas bears did what came naturally--they bred and bore litters. Bear densities increased. At some point, the more adventurous bears among them--mostly young males on their own for the first time--began seeking out territories with fewer bears.

Some traveled north. Most of the Missourians who spotted these first visitors to our state were thrilled. A couple of them, unfortunately, shot first and asked questions later, more to prove that they had actually seen a bear than because of any imminent threat. Many of those first bears shot in Missouri were the actual bears released in Arkansas.

Those people happy that bears had arrived in our state duly reported each sighting to friends, neighbors and wildlife biologists. Seeing bears in some areas became fairly commonplace; the idea of bears here in Missouri, cozily familiar.

Missouri black bears now number somewhere between 150 and 300 individuals, according to Dave Hamilton, the Conservation Department's furbearer biologist. And because photos of sows with young cubs have not been taken, no hard evidence yet exists to prove, beyond a doubt, that any litter has been born in the state. That may be because black bears are generally secretive.

Male bears, or boars, are loners except during the mating season. Female bears--sows--give birth every other year. The average litter consists of from two to four cubs, and cubs stay with their mother for about 17 months before striking out on their own.

Black bear breeding peaks in July. When a boar mates with a sow, his sperm fertilizes her ova to create a blastocyst, a hollow ball of cells, that floats freely within her uterus in a state of embryonic arrest for up to five months. The embryo or embryos within this blastocyst will develop no further until implanted in the sow's uterine wall later that fall.

As summer progresses, the female roams about her home range, looking for choice foods. When acorns mature in September, bears begin a period of frenzied feeding that may

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