Conservationists tracking bears in Missouri

Shining his flashlight into the trap, Jeff Beringer finds the safe end of the bear, sticking the needle deep.

The team waits for the sedation drug, Telazol, to work. Ten minutes.

He whispers, because a medicated bear falls asleep easier when it’s not riled up.

Beringer, Missouri’s best bear expert, stares up into the tree canopies while waiting. Because the bear in the barrel trap, the first one caught this year, has gnawed teats.

“There may be cubs up there.”

Leaves rustle in the breeze. Nothing else moves. The forest beyond is dark with mystery.

But these woods this morning have given up their biggest secret. A chubby one weighing 210 pounds.

Missouri has black bears. Lots of them.

In the last two years, 108 bears have been collared, weighed, measured, had their teeth pulled and hair snipped by resource scientists from the state’s Department of Conservation. Just how many more are out there — twice as many, three times? — remains to be figured out.

This is the third year for the Missouri Black Bear Project. Hundreds of wildlife cameras and hair snare traps around the state are already in place, counting bears and capturing data, too. But the field studies require hands-on work.

Tempting bears with tubs of stale Krispy Kremes and burnt-honey-laced dog food, bears are following their noses right into the study.

Scientists trap and tag them, and snap a 2.5-pound leather collar with a GPS and VHF transmitter around every furry neck they find. Already, the teams have learned that female bears stay within a 30-mile radius; males, which can grow to 900 pounds, ramble, sometimes logging hundred-mile hikes.

Twenty-three counties in southern Missouri are peppered with bruins. DNA genotyping can tell whether lineage is from Arkansas or Canada (in the 1960s a release of 250 bears in Arkansas has since repopulated several states). From this science, the teams also have discovered a true Missouri native bear population.

These get the most respect from Beringer. Once considered extinct in the state since the 1940s, they survived hunting, trapping and destruction of habitat, retreating deep in the shadows of forests, park lands and private acreage.

“They never left,” he says.

He peeks into the barrel, clapping his hands, jangling keys. No response except gentle snores.

Hands carefully pull the sleeping bear out of the barrel, sliding her onto a tarp. A red bandanna is draped over her eyes. One ear’s already tagged: she’s a recapture, from last year. A Missouri native.

Beringer checks his notes. She’s four years old; bore cubs last year. So no little ones hanging around now. She smells like dirt and compost, wet dog and musk oil. Her black fur, still coarse from winter cold and missing in patches, is occupied in spots by blood-swollen ticks.

Beringer squeezes some eye drops to sooth her blink reflex. He pats her belly, rolls her over, plucking a few ticks to bring back to his office for study. So many ticks.

“Kinda makes you want to put Frontline on her, doesn’t it?” he says.

He pats her left paw in sympathy. But scientists cannot interfere. That might skew results of the study by causing a bear to live longer. Wild bears have a lifespan of about 17 years, or so scientists believe. This Black Bear Project will check even that basic fact.

This morning another trap, also made of three 55-gallon barrels welded end to end, lures in a doughnut-loving cub. Too small for a collar, it’s released. By Thursday night, six more adults and another cub. A good week.

On the Black Bear Project website, a map shows the bears have marched north through the rugged Ozark hills nearly to St. Louis. Beringer says he wouldn’t be surprised if Jackson County had one or two.

Black bears are shy around humans and Beringer wants them to stay that way. Missourians need to be bear aware. “A fed bear is a dead bear. Don’t feed them. Keep them wild.”

This wild sow still slumbers. He lifts up her muzzle, which is brown, to check yellowed teeth. A few gaps, including one from the tooth Beringer pulled for last year’s study. But then he gasps: her lower right canine is gnarly, jutting out at an angle. Something wrenched it from its socket, and it’s healed back.

Protecting cubs from a strange male bear or other predator? No matter. He thinks of extracting it, to let her close her mouth better. But no, he leaves it be, marveling at her toughness.

The examination and collecting is finished.

The collar is ready. Leather, says Beringer, “so it’ll rot off.” They don’t want a collar embedding itself into the neck during the fattening up for winter. Plus, the collars are retrieved and reused.

The team waits 40 feet back. They won’t leave until certain she is awake. And soon enough, her tongue starts licking. One eye opens, then the other.

She stands with wobbly legs, woozy in the dappled shade. In a minute or two, Ursus americanus stumbles away deep into the forest, necklaced by two-inch-wide leather, both ears tagged, like earrings.

Missouri bear No. 1002.

Who just had the strangest dream.