(St.Joseph,MO) It's camping season and if you plan on traveling to southern Missouri for a float trip or a weekend getaway, bugs and sunburns might be the least of your worries.
Sean Cleary, a Wildlife Management Biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation said people throughout the state are seeing more predators pass through Missouri.
"As far as black bears, we've got an estimated population of about 300, mostly in the south third of the state," Cleary said. “They’ve kind of migrated, expanded from Arkansas. Arkansas reintroduced black bears in [the] early 60s and they established themselves and since then have expanded themselves up to southern Missouri.”
The black bear is the only species of bear found in Missouri and are typically found in dense wooded areas south of the Missouri River. Larger predators like black bears and mountain lions were extirpated from the state in the early 1900s, but are slowly making a comeback.
"Established cat populations from out west, those cats have followed river corridors and found their way back to Missouri," Cleary said.
Smaller cats like bobcats might be able to hunt and thrive in northwest Missouri,but conservationists said it isn’t a good habitat for mountain lions.
“Once you get north of the Missouri river there is a lot of agriculture which implies a lot of open lands, not as much oak hickory forest for them to live and maneuver through,” Cleary said.
The flat farmlands of northwest Missouri don’t make the best hunting grounds for black bears either.
“Even ten years down the road, just like now, there would be some sub-adult male black bears that will probably come through north Missouri, but as far as an established population up here, because of all the open agriculture, pasture it would be pretty tough for them to be sustainable up here,” Cleary said.
While the bear and mountain lion populations are still relatively small, there are still a few precautions that should be taken when camping in the southern part of the state.
"Any food left unattended, not hung in the air or in a locked vehicle is going to attract bears by nature, because they are omnivorous and they would rather find a free meal," Cleary said.
Most animals looking for an easy meal find it at local campgrounds in the form of leftover food and open trash bins.
“Once a bear gets into human trash, they start simulating human people as food, or that they can get food around them, and then it never ends up good,” Cleary said.
Camp Ranger John Clawson has been working with Boy Scouts at Camp Geiger for several seasons and said because of loose food, a few of the scouts have gotten up close and personal with wildlife.
"We've had a few scouts over the years that have woken up in the middle of the night with a raccoon staring at them, because they left their bag of chips right there as they fell asleep,” Clawson said.
If you find yourself in close quarters with a wild animal, conservationists stay to try to stay calm. While some animals might be curious, you will most likely spot them from a distance.
"If you were lucky enough to see a bobcat or a mountain lion, it's usually going to be from a far. Enjoy the sighting, because it's probably going to be pretty rare,"Cleary said.
Because of their low population, both black bears and mountain lions are protected species in Missouri.
There have been 71 confirmed mountain lions sightings in Missouri in the last 25 years. If you have evidence of a mountain lion on or near your property, contact the Missouri Department of Conservation.
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