Bears aren't at home on Kansas range - yet

07/02/2011 12:00 AM

03/13/2012 10:45 AM

From little lizards to majestic mule deer, Melissa McKinley thought she'd seen every kind of wildlife possible in her rural southwest Kansas yard.

Then a few weeks ago, she looked to see why her dogs were barking.

"I figured it was maybe a rabbit. When I opened the door there was a bear," said McKinley, of rural Morton County. "He seemed pretty content to be there, just sitting in a wagon."

B.J. Thurman, the region's game warden for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, said he has received reports of bears the last 10 years.

Chances are more will wander into Kansas from neighboring states with expanding bear populations.

"We used to think our only population was in southeast Oklahoma," said Joe Hemphill, an Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation biologist. "Now we have a population in the northeast, and we've caught five nuisance bears in northwest Oklahoma in the last month."

In the past year or so, bears were hit by cars in Neosho, Mo. —about 20 miles as the bear rambles from southeast Kansas.

Black bear comeback

Most black bears were wiped out in Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma by the early 1900s.

Arkansas reintroduced the species into some mountainous areas about 50 years ago. They've since prospered, multiplied and moved across state lines.

"Ours were a blessing from Arkansas," Oklahoma's Hemphill said. "I'm 100 percent sure we've had reproducing bears since 1991."

The population in northeastern Oklahoma is more recent, with animals coming across the Arkansas border.

Bears in the Oklahoma panhandle probably followed the Cimarron River east from New Mexico. A small population of reproducing black bears is reported in the panhandle's rugged Black Mesa area.

Those bears and others in the mountains could be currently on the move.

"It's a drought situation and they're looking for food," Hemphill said. "No telling where you'll end up seeing bears."

Young male bears also often wander from established populations looking for love.

Jeff Berringer, a Missouri Department of Conservation research biologist, said bears that came over the Arkansas line feel right at home in the Missouri Ozarks.

The state's main bear range is south of I-44, which angles from Joplin to St. Louis.

"But we've had reports of bears all the way to Iowa," he said.

Good thing, bad thing

Berringer and Hemphill said most people in their states' bear country like having the animals around. Many like knowing a once-native species has returned.

In both states, many landowners like seeing bears on their properties.

Oklahoma had its second bear hunting season last fall to help control the growing population. The season was to end the day that hunters killed the 20th bear, but 32 were killed on opening day.

Some people get a bit of a thrill knowing a large predator is about.

The Missouri Department of Conservation is educating residents on how to avoid confrontations with those predators, both in the wilds and in populated areas.

Bears are omnivores and eat other animals, berries, crops and nuts. They'll gladly go for easier meals.

"We get quite a few calls from people with bears getting into their dog's food," Hemphill said, "and it seems like everybody in southeast Oklahoma dumps out some food for some kind of dog. Bears love that free food."

Bear in the yard

The bear in McKinley's yard seemed set on staying for a spell.

As well as alternating between napping and sitting in the wagon, it found a covered trash can filled with dog food.

A grain elevator next door could have provided a ready supply of food, too.

Kansas wildlife officials were called and failed to chase the young male bear away from the house.

An Oklahoma officer eventually arrived with a tranquilizer gun.

The bear was darted, fitted with an ear tag for identification and released near the Colorado border.

About a week later it was found investigating a barbecue grill at a Colorado ranch.

Brad Odle, a Wildlife and Parks law enforcement supervisor, said Colorado wildlife officials saw the ear tag, deemed the bear a repeat problem and destroyed the animal.

Odle said dealing with nuisance bears often forces biologists to make hard decisions.

"You always have to think about public safety," he said. "We don't want to release a problem bear then have it hurt somebody."

Though it rarely happens, black bears can pose a problem.

For one thing, they're big animals. Ten of the 32 bears shot in Oklahoma last year weighed more than 300 pounds; two topped 500 pounds.

They're also equipped with formidable weapons.

"Those claws are built to strip meat from bones," Odle said.

Their jaws can snap a deer's spine.

Sometimes sows with cubs or bears feeling pressured can turn on humans.

The bear in McKinley's Morton County yard snapped its teeth and made a short, bluff charge when a biologist got too close.

Odle is hoping to get tranquilizer guns scattered around western Kansas. What happens to a tranquilized bear would be decided by wildlife officials on a bear-by-bear basis.

Bears in Kansas' future?

Nobody knows how often people will deal with bears in Kansas. More bears will surely move in from other states, but will there ever be enough for a reproducing population?

Historically, they weren't common on the prairie. Hemphill said that northeast Oklahoma bears seem to avoid areas that are open or heavily populated.

Matt Peek, Kansas Wildlife and Parks furbearer biologist, sees pros and cons to areas of Kansas closest to other bear populations.

Southwest Kansas has many remote areas but is mostly open except for salt cedar jungles along the rivers.

Southeast Kansas has some impressive stands of timber, but roads and people are common.

"It's kind of a mystery where they may exist in the future in the state," Peek said.

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