COLUMBIA, Mo. – As bear sightings continue around St. Louis and across Missouri, the state is now preparing for its first-ever, state-regulated black bear hunt.
A FOX 2 crew went to Columbia, Missouri on Tuesday to meet with the state’s leading expert on black bears to find out the reasons for the hunt and just how big our bear population is expected to get.
“Missouri is bear country. Think about that: Missouri is bear country,” said Laura Conlee, furbearer and black bear biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC).
Conlee leads a team of experts that’s been tracking Missouri’s black bears using location collars and checking their dens.
“We visit them every year in the winter den, count how many cubs they have in the den, and then follow them to the next year to see how many of those cubs survive,” Conlee said. “All of that information provides the data necessary to estimate how quickly that population is growing. That population is growing and expanding in range. When you look at those areas south of St. Louis and southwest of St. Louis, that’s where bear numbers are increasing.”
The population estimate has more than doubled in the past decade from about 350 to more than 800, according to the MDC’s research project. It’s expected to double again over the next 10 years.
The growing population has paved the way Missouri’s first-ever, state-regulated bear hunt for 10 days in October 2021. Discussions have been ongoing for the past 18 to 24 months, Conlee said.
People may have differing opinions about hunting, whether they think it’s a good thing. State officials stress the upcoming hunt is very limited and not just about sport. It’s not about bagging a trophy.
There will be three bear hunting zones all south of the Missouri River. The St. Louis region is split between zones 2 and 3.
Zone 2 has a total harvest limit of 15 bears with 150 hunting permits issued. Zone 3’s harvest limit is five bears with 50 hunting permits issued. Zone 1’s harvest limit is 20 bears with 200 permits issued. There’s a statewide harvest limit of 40 total.
Hunters can hunt only lone bears, not those in groups. Hunters are required to submit a pre-molar tooth from each bear to the MDC.
“You can section it and essentially like you would look at the rings of a tree, you can look at the rings of that premolar and determine the animal’s age. That information will help us make informed management decisions into the future,” Conlee said.
The department will provide guidance/meetings for scouting hunting areas, processing meat, and meeting all requirements. Hunters will have to check daily to make sure harvest limits have not yet been met in a given zone.
The department also provides information about how to handle and report bear encounters.
“It really speaks volumes to the conservation ethic of the state and the fact that we have the habitat available to support these animals,” Conlee said.
Missouri is bear country, indeed.