Several years ago I went to visit the old homestead in Arkansas’s Newton County where my mother had grown up. The old home place is only a couple of miles, as the crow flies, from the scenic Buffalo River. There are few of the old roads still open. What used to be the county road became too expensive to maintain and was consequently fenced and gated by out of state property owners. Trying to coordinate with a diverse group of landowners to obtain keys seemed insurmountable so we decided to just hike in from a public campground on the Buffalo and follow some stream beds right up to the property.
My cousin, my twelve year old son, and me as the guide, set out early in the morning for our hike. It was a memorable trip for many reasons but the thing that still stands out to this day is the fact that we saw the unmistakable freshly made foot prints of bear in the soft wet sand all along that creek bed. I grew up in Arkansas and spent the first 18 years of my life hunting and fishing those remote areas. I well remember when the first bear were transplanted in the late 1950’s. However, I never saw one. There were occasional reports of bear sightings, usually fleeting glimpses that were unsubstantiated, but it was a relatively rare occurrence.
Much had changed in the twenty plus intervening years. Bears had become common place. Our senses were on high alert after observing those fresh tracks. I noticed other things that spoke of the presence of bear. I noticed that almost every dogwood tree in the understory showed signs of trauma. They were pushed over, broken down or had limbs stripped off. I had no idea that bears liked the red berries that ripen in the late summer on those dogwood trees. From the looks of those trees they are obviously a favorite bear food item. I also observe flat rocks that had been recently disturbed. They were flipped over or pushed aside to reveal what delectable delight might be hiding there like; worms, grubs, bugs, snakes and lizards as well as the occasional small rodent. We didn’t see any bears that day but we made it to the old home place, snapped a few picture of the old barn and got a drink from the old spring. The water was still clear and cold and nobody got sick from drinking it.
Fast forward to 2011, in Gasconade County, Missouri. A friend invited me to visit his property in a remote area, South of Hermann during the spring turkey season. He owns a beautiful tract of land that is managed primarily for deer hunting. The turkeys were not interested that particular morning so I spent a while exploring the property before heading back to the house. The top of the ridge was rather rocky with big slabs of flat limestone rock lying about. Suddenly I noticed a familiar pattern. A lot of these rocks had been disturbed. Many were too big for a human to easily handle but they had been flipped over exposing the bare ground underneath. I noted several of these on my way back to the house. The ground was too hard and rocky to hold any foot prints, but to me it was obvious. Upon arriving at the house I asked my friend if there were any feral hogs around and he assured me that there were none. My reply was, “Then I believe you have a bear living here.” He was not receptive to the thought even after I explained my reasoning. However, later that summer, I was vindicated when his oldest son, a grown man in his thirties observed a bear on his place.
It is well know that we have a growing population of black bears in Missouri, particularly south of the Missouri River. There are getting to be more frequent reports of bear sightings north of the river as well. There was a picture last spring that was widely distributed on social media of a young black bear in a field along Highway 47 between Marthasville and Warrenton.
It should not come as surprise to find evidence of bears. However, this past weekend, I spent a little time at my property in Crawford County. It was just a bit of a walk about, as I looked for the ever elusive morel mushroom and planned for turkey hunting. Suddenly, it was déjà vu all over again as I started noticing pushed over, broken down and otherwise mauled dogwood trees. This had obviously happened last fall and the evidence was overwhelming. I had a very large bear munching dogwood berries on my own property within a hundred yards of my cabin! Noting the size of the trees and the ease with which they were mauled, this was indeed a large bruin.
I have to admit, I am excited to think that I have bears using my forest, but at the same time, it will require additional safety measures for my pets and my grandchildren. We will all have to be cognizant of their presence. I have no idea if this bear might be a boar or a sow. A sow with cubs can be dangerous if she feels that her cubs are threatened. Our life will now change as we have additional safety concerns, concerns like always carrying a firearm when hiking or working, keeping pets on leashes and not allowing small children to play unattended. Disposing of trash and food waste as well as animal carcasses just got more complicated. Picking berries and feeding birds can be problematic as well. Even leaving food in my unattended cabin could pose a problem.
Just remember to be more cognizant of your surroundings this spring when you head out to look for mushrooms, pick berries or hunt turkeys. Go to your state conservation department website for tips on being safe in bear country. Be prepared, you just might see a bear, or at the very least, bear sign.