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Wild bears in Kansas? Experts say more on the way

Black bears in Kansas

Biologists have been studying how Missouri's black bear population is growing. The occasional animal, from that population, is seen in southeastern Kansas. (Courtesy of the Missouri Department of Conservation)
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Biologists have been studying how Missouri's black bear population is growing. The occasional animal, from that population, is seen in southeastern Kansas. (Courtesy of the Missouri Department of Conservation)

Two years ago, a black bear was spotted strolling down a back road in Cherokee County.

In 2011, a woman looked at the window of her rural Morton County home in to see a black bear sitting in a child’s wagon.

For the past 15 years wild black bears have occasionally wandered into the southern corners of Kansas from Missouri and Oklahoma.

Experts say in the next decade or so wild black bears will likely become full-time Kansas residents instead of tourists.

“We have reproducing populations getting closer and closer,” said Matt Peek, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism furbearer biologist. “If the habitat is right when they come into Kansas, I think we have the opportunity for black bears to become established.”

As recently as two summers ago Peek said two bears were documented in southeast Kansas and another along the Colorado border. Most years, bears are seen near the Cimarron River in extreme southwest Kansas.

Having watched bears gradually expanding their ranges in Missouri and Oklahoma, experts in those two states agree enough of their bears eventually could cross state lines to create permanent populations in Kansas.

With those bears could come problems.

But while neither Oklahoma or Missouri has reported bears attacking people in modern times, it’s happened in other states. Both Oklahoma and Missouri are currently advising residents of how to protect pets and livestock from possible attacks.

From Arkansas to Kansas

Pre-civilization Kansas was home to both grizzly and black bears, Peek said. The latter were reported around Lawrence in about 1860. A few years later, J.R. Mead, a frontiersman and one of Wichita’s founders, hunted them in the Red Hills region west of where Medicine Lodge now sits.

The majority of Kansas’ black bears were limited to areas along creeks and rivers and were gone from most of Kansas by the late 1870s.

A bear of unknown origin was shot in Baldwin City near Lawrence in the 1960s. Another walked railroad tracks into Elkhart, in extreme southwest Kansas, in the 1980s.

The chances of bears coming back to Kansas increased significantly in the late 1950s when Arkansas began reintroducing black bears to the rugged terrain in the southwestern part of the state. Southwest Arkansas now has an estimated 3,000 bears. By the 1970s bears were crossing the border from Arkansas into southeastern Oklahoma, where they hadn’t been found in the wild since the early 1900s.

Don P. Brown, Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation information specialist, said an estimated 500 bears live in a few southeastern counties. Another 50 reside in the east-central part of the state.

For about the past 30 years, bears from the Rocky Mountains have been wandering along rivers and streams into the Oklahoma panhandle, where they’ve created a reproducing population.

Missouri has been getting black bears from northern Arkansas for about the past 40 years. Alan Leary, Missouri Department of Conservation wildlife management coordinator, said the state’s population has been increasing and expanding since.

Missouri’s main black bear range is in some of the most rugged parts of the Ozarks south of I-44, which runs from Springfield to St. Louis. Those who’ve driven from Springfield to Branson have gone through some of Missouri’s best bear country.

Both Missouri and Oklahoma have documented baby bears in their core black bear areas for at least 20 years.

But as well as areas where black bears are now as much a part of the landscape as bobcats, coyotes and deer, Oklahoma and Missouri are seeing increasing numbers of black bears wandering farther and farther. Sometimes those bears are ending up in or within a few miles of Kansas.

Brown said he’s heard of bears being seen near Tulsa and around Grand Lake, a popular recreational destination for Kansans just a few miles south of the Oklahoma border in southeast Kansas.

A map of verified bear sightings in Missouri shows several in the counties that border southeast Kansas. Roadkills have been found as close as Neosho, Mo., about 20 miles from the Kansas border.

Peek said many of the bears are probably young males pushed from established areas by a natural instinct to disperse and older males who are not willing to share their territory. The nomads probably wander until they find another good chunk of habitat or a female bear. Ideally, they’d like to find both.

Hunger also can put black bears on the move. Bears feed heavily on pecans, acorns and green vegetation. When those are in short supply, they begin searching. Drought almost always puts hungry bears on the prowl.

During the drought of 2011 five problematic bears were trapped and relocated in northwestern Oklahoma within about a month. Biologists think they probably followed rivers and creeks from the Rocky Mountains. Some may also have come from the rugged, and beautiful, Black Mesa area in the western Oklahoma panhandle.

With bears, comes probelms

Biologists say even when natural food is abundant, a bear’s stomach is often what gets it into trouble with humans.

“They’re kind of like really big raccoons,” Peek said. “They have a way of getting into all kinds of things, but especially trash and crops.”

Oklahoma and Missouri wildlife departments have active programs to teach people how to discourage bears from getting into problematic situations.

They’ve encouraged people to stop feeding pets outdoors and to take down bird feeders in the spring and summer months, when black bears are most active. Leary said most Ozark black bears are in hibernation by winter when most birds become really active at feeders, anyway.

Bears can become problematic around gardens, which they see as an easy buffet of tomatoes, sweet corn and other vegetables. They’re as at home feeding in a farmer’s corn and soybeans as any deer.

Leary said the Department of Conservation now sends fliers to be posted at campgrounds in southern Missouri.

“There are signs on how to live and camp in bear country,” he said. “We tell them what they need to do as per food storage and possible sleeping arrangements. We don’t want to have any issues with bears in our campgrounds.”

Black bears are omnivores and won’t pass up a chance to add some meat to their diet. They willingly feed on carrion, like dead cattle and road-killed deer. They can easily kill a live deer, especially young fawns.

Though not overly common, black bears have been known to prey on livestock like sheep, goats and young cattle and horses. Cats and dogs also can become targets.

Wildlife officials are teaching Missouri and Oklahoma farmers and ranchers to reduce such risks by keeping animals out of heavy cover, especially when young are being born. They’re also told not to leave dead animals anywhere near those that are alive.

There’s no known record of bears attacking people in Missouri or Oklahoma in modern times, but an online check shows it’s happened in Arkansas and several other states with high populations of black bears.

But the possibility exists anytime people and bears meet. In 2011 a bear near a home in southwest Kansas snapped its jaws and made a fake charge at two game wardens.

Brown, Leary and Peek said the animals certainly deserve respect. Since 2009 Oklahoma has had a fall bear hunting season in a few southeastern counties to help control the population and reduce human/bear conflicts.

Brown said most years hunting is limited to taking 50 or fewer bears. Still, many have weighed more than 300 pounds and some up to 500 pounds. All bears come with claws sharp enough to shred flesh and have enough power in their jaws to snap the spine of a deer.

Despite a few problems Brown and Leary said most people in their respective states appreciate having bears around. Some just like seeing them occasionally and knowing a once native animal is back after being gone most of the 20th century.

Traveling bears

So, where and when will Kansans have a chance to have bears living full-time within our borders?

Peek said our state probably doesn’t have the habitat to support as many bears as the rugged hills of Missouri and Oklahoma. The animals haven’t done well in open prairie.

The biologist sees some possibilities in some big tracts of timber in southeast Kansas. The Chautauqua Hills near Sedan, probably have enough acorn-producing oak trees and rugged valleys with rock formations the size of small cars to appeal to bears.

“You’d have to think we have a few places where the habitat is right for bears as they expand out of neighboring states,” Peek said. “If that habitat is right, I think we have the opportunity for black bears to become established in Kansas in the next 10 to 15 years. Time will tell.”

Michael Pearce: 316-268-6382, @PearceOutdoors

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