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Bear necessities



With their guns, tasers, badges and body cameras, the uniformed Missouri Department of Conservation agents are an intimidating, protective presence for the crew of MDC biologists and tagalong guests trekking toward a black bear den in the remote Ozarks timber of Shannon County.

As soon as cuddly cubs are placed in the agents’ arms, however, their tough exterior softens into snuggles and smiles.

And they’re not the only ones handing out bear hugs on this warm March day. A contingent from MFA Incorporated as well as some local officials and conservation staff from other areas of the state were allowed to accompany the MDC bear team on this den visit as part of the department’s public education and outreach efforts. As the sedated mama bear was evaluated by the MDC crew, her three cubs were checked, microchipped, weighed and passed around for the eager group to hold.

“To say I was excited about this opportunity would be an understatement,” said Emily Beck, MFA’s conservation specialist. “I gladly drove five hours one way to South Missouri to just see a Missouri bear. There were plenty of others attending who felt the same. Everyone in our group was able to hold the cubs and see the mother bear. That’s when it hit me—this is conservation working at optimum. We’ve been able to bring back a species that was thought to be eradicated from the land it once roamed. It makes me realize maybe our farming goals are a lot more obtainable than we think.”

The den visit was part of a 10-year reproductive study that has provided the department with information to quantify and predict the health and growth of Missouri’s black bears. These efforts show the population is growing and expanding from its primary range in forested areas south of I-44 into other areas of the state. Most recent estimates show that Missouri now has more than 900 bears, a number calculated from data collected during den surveys such as this.

“Missouri has a great conservation story in the recovery and revival of our black bear population, and we want to keep it that way,” said Nate Bowersock, MDC furbearer biologist. “That means we need to regularly monitor their numbers and health to make sure they’re continuing to thrive. If we start to see issues, it’s important for us to take action as soon as possible.”

Bringing back bears
Such care wasn’t always the case. Once abundant across Missouri, native black bears were nearly eradicated by unregulated hunting as the state was settled in the 1800s, and by the 1930s, they had all but disappeared.

“We really thought our Missouri bear population was gone,” Bowersock said. “At one point, it was the most commonly harvested animal in the state besides deer.”

In the 1960s, the Game and Fish Commission in neighboring Arkansas trapped more than 200 bears from Minnesota and Manitoba, Canada, and relocated them to the state to bolster the remnants of its native population. This project was highly successful, and bears from Arkansas eventually began making their way into Missouri. Most of the bears seen in Missouri today are the result of Arkansas’ reintroduction program, although genetic evidence collected by MDC suggests that a small indigenous population may have survived in remote parts of the Show-Me State.

“Through our DNA work, we’ve actually identified that we had a remnant of Missouri bears, even though the majority we’ve studied are from the Manitoba strain,” said Scott McWilliams,

MDC wildlife damage biologist who has been working with Missouri bears for more than 30 years. “We didn’t do anything to change the state’s population, but they’ve naturally been coming back. We’re seeing the numbers grow about 10% every year.”

As bear sightings became more frequent, MDC established a formal plan to encourage a self-sustaining population through research, monitoring and habitat management. Missouri’s bear research began in earnest in 2010, using methods that include trapping and radio-collaring females and collecting fur samples from hair snares made from barbed wire stretched across trees.

“We’re using those hair samples to study the abundance of the bear population and link landscape features to where we’re detecting bears,” Bowersock said. “That allows us to better predict how our bears distribute across the state based on factors such as forest cover, terrain or human development. That’s going to be important as we move forward with our bear management plan and put more resources into outreach and education.”

Measuring and monitoring
When doing den checks, March is usually the best month, Bowersock noted, because the female bears, or sows, are still in hibernation mode and their cubs are old enough to be handled. Black bears breed during the summer, but the embryo does not grow until the female begins denning in November. The cubs are born hairless and weighing approximately 8 ounces in January and will nurse as the mother continues to hibernate.

By the time the MDC team visited this particular sow’s den on March 11, her three male cubs were about 6 weeks old, the largest weighing 5 pounds and the other two about 2.5 pounds each. Their 15-year-old mother, first collared and studied in 2011, weighed around 250 pounds. She had made a winter home for herself and her cubs underneath a pile of felled trees and branches from a logging slash. Bowersock had to crawl into the cramped space to perform a checkup on the tranquilized sow.

“Bears go through lots of changes throughout the year, and staying on top of how healthy they are is really important,” Bowersock said. “We check how much fat she has, examine her teeth and look for signs of other issues. This sow was in good health and had a lot of body fat. We also document how many cubs she had and what sex they are, and we take DNA samples to check the relatedness of the population. And if we’re visiting a den with yearling cubs, we see how many of those survived from the previous year. We can use all that information in our models to help us track the trajectory of the population.”

At the end of this visit, the sow’s GPS collar was removed, her role in the study complete. She’s among 15 female black bears that were surveyed in their winter dens this year.
“We’ll have four more bears we can monitor next denning season, and then we’re wrapping up this current research study,” Bowersock said. “We’ve answered a lot of really good questions but that opens up new questions to explore.”

As she slowly began awakening from her sedation, the team carefully placed the mama’s cubs back inside the den and waited to see that she was alert before leaving the area. Bowersock assured the group that the bear family would be unfazed by the visit.

“In most cases, we should always leave wildlife alone if we can, but for this kind of work, bears don’t seem to be overly concerned about human interaction,” he said. “For Pete’s sake, I was laying in the den next to her. It doesn’t disrupt them at all.”

Cubs typically stay with their mother for two summers, McWilliams said, before they go off on their own. As yearlings, the female cubs will establish home ranges near their mother, while the males will begin to disperse into new areas.

“This year’s cubs will usually be in the den until about the first of April, when they weigh around 10 pounds. And when mama starts moving, they will follow her,” he explained. “She keeps them all summer long, and they nurse until sometime this fall. Then they’ll start eating like mom teaches them, and they all go in the den together again for the winter. Those yearling cubs will also hibernate, but it’s like any kid. They’re more active than their mama and don’t sleep as well.”

Bears being bears
Black bears are omnivores that eat a variety of foods, Bowersock said. In Missouri, their diet largely consists of acorns along with other nuts and seeds, grass, berries and other fruits. They will also eat bees and honey, many types of insects, fish, frogs, small rodents, fawns, bird eggs and carrion.

“Hollywood always shows bears being these big human-hunting, meat-eating animals that are out to get you,” Bowersock said. “But at the end of the day, bears just want to do bear stuff. They just want to go eat food, and most of their diet is plant-based. The further east in the U.S. you get, you see bears eating less meat because there’s more vegetation available throughout the year.”

One thing that helps the black bear population grow, Bowersock pointed out, is that the species has a robust immune system and rarely shows signs of disease. Only recently have a few bears shown signs of mange, a skin mite that leads to hair loss.

“Mange has started to become more common for bears to get in the eastern U.S.,” Bowersock said, “but we’ve only seen the disease in a handful of cases in Missouri.”
In addition to strong immunity, bears also have an incredible ability to heal quickly from wounds, Bowersock said. These biological anomalies are among reasons he’s concentrated his career on these ursine animals, previously studying grizzlies and black bears in Yellowstone National Park before joining MDC two years ago.

“They’re just fascinating creatures to study,” he said. “Can we learn something from their immune systems to help humans fight off diseases better? Can we copy their ability to slow metabolism and survive with little resources for long periods of time—
essentially find a way to make humans more bear-like for something like space travel? These are some of the things that scientists are trying to figure out.”

Opening opportunities
In 2021, after MDC determined that the state’s bear population had grown to self-sustaining levels, Missouri opened its first-ever regulated black bear hunt. The season is only open for 10 days in October and includes zone-specific harvest and permit quotas to prevent overharvest. MDC also bans the use of bait and dogs and requires hunters to recover the meat, which is a high-quality protein source. These strict guidelines make it one of the more conservative approaches to bear management in the country, Bowersock said.

“We’ve now had three seasons that provide Missourians an opportunity to hunt bears while still allowing the population to grow,” he said. “Down the road, we will potentially move to using hunting as a management tool, but right now we’re not at that point. We still want to see our bear numbers increase and expand across the state.”

In 2023, MDC offered 400 permits to harvest a maximum of 32 black bears. Hunters ultimately killed 12 bears statewide. Based on current population estimates, Bowersock said he is recommending similar guidelines for 2024.

Missouri residents who will be at least 11 years old by the first day of the hunt are eligible to apply for bear permits during from May 1-31. Permits will be assigned through a random drawing. Interested individuals may apply by visiting mdc.mo.gov/buypermits, using MDC’s free MO Hunting app or calling 1-800-392-4115.
As the population grows, MDC is also addressing ways to reduce human-bear conflict. Black bears aren’t inherently dangerous to humans, Bowersock explained, but they are attracted to food sources such as bird feeders, garbage, grills, and feed for pets and livestock.

“Unless you corner a bear, they tend to be quite fearful of humans,” he said. “They’re probably more scared of us than we are them.”

The department participates in the national “BearWise” program that provides sound information and solutions to help people, neighborhoods and communities prevent conflicts with black bears. Removing or securing food attractants is key to preventing most human-bear conflicts, said Greg Collier, MDC agriculture liaison.

“We really get much more excitement than we do concerns about bears,” Collier said. “People are thrilled when they get to see a bear in the wild. Most of the damage reports we see are black bears discovering a backyard birdfeeder or dog food on the porch. The main issues for agriculture have been bears getting into chicken coops and beehives, so we encourage using electric fencing around those areas. Bears really don’t like to be shocked, so that’s highly effective.”

People should never approach a bear or feed them, intentionally or accidentally, Collier added. When bears lose their fear of humans, they may become bold in search of food. MDC encourages bear sightings to be reported at mdc.mo.gov/reportbears. Damage or nuisance activity from a bear can also be reported to MDC regional offices or local conservation agents.

“Black bear is an iconic species that has an important place in Missouri’s ecosystem,” Bowersock said. “We have great bear habitat, especially in southern Missouri, and they can certainly prosper here, just as they have in the past. By continuing to maintain those natural resources, having regulations in place that protect bears and being aware of how to interact safely with these animals, we’re giving them the space they need to rebuild the presence they once had in our landscape.”

CLICK TO READ the full April 2024 Issue of Today's Farmer magazine.

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Progressive paddocks

Expertise in the field, on the farm highlight MFA’s Forage Tour

Tom Spriggs was planting native grasses “before it was cool.”

That’s how Landry Jones, MFA conservation grazing specialist, described the host of the 2023 Forage Tour, held June 15 on Spriggs’ farm in Marshfield, Mo.

“I started in 1982 on a small field that was not productive,” Spriggs explained. “Each year, I would plant a few more acres in native grass. Pretty soon, those three acres become 30.”

Spriggs continues to improve and build on his plan to manage the farm’s cool-season and native warm-season grasses. He now has about 70 acres in native grasses to supplement his cattle operation with plans to establish more this year.

“My goal is to have about 25-30% of warm-season grasses in the pastures I use for the cattle,” Spriggs said.

Before visiting Spriggs’ farm, attendees at last year’s Forage Tour gathered at the Marshfield Community Center for presentations that included Ryan Lock, former University of Missouri

Extension specialist in forage and livestock systems, who discussed PaddockTrac, an innovative way to measure and monitor forage production.

“If you are not measuring, you can’t manage,” Lock said.

Developed by MU, PaddockTrac uses a patented method of collecting forage data with sensors that attach to an ATV or UTV and collect data as the producer drives through the pasture.

23TrialSummaryData is uploaded to MU’s Grazing Wedge cloud-based server, where producers can get reliable information within minutes—saving thousands of hours in manual forage measurement on the farm.

“With PaddockTrac, farmers can use their smartphones as a tool,” Lock added. “As the data is being collected in the field, they are able to capture the value of the forage.”

The morning’s sessions also featured Scott Pace of Parker McCrory Manufacturing Company in Kansas City, Mo., who offered insights into the future of fencing with Parmak products.

“Since 1921, the company has been on the leading edge of electric fencing,” Pace said. “We support farmers and ranchers around the globe with electric chargers, wire, polywire, polytape, rope, insulators and other accessories. You name it, we got it.”

After lunch, the attendees visited Spriggs’ farm to view his native grass pastures, to learn about several herbicide and fertilizer trials and to see a drone sprayer in action. The drone demonstration used water to show different types of spray coverage for multiple applications.

“Drone spraying is really taking off, no pun intended, especially in the range and pasture world due to all the small, hard-to-get-to fields that ground rigs just can’t cover,” Jones said.

The fertilizer and herbicide strip trials that were planted by Jones and MFA Range and Pasture Specialist David Moore are summarized in the chart on page 11. Among the take-home points of these studies, Jones said, were:
· Strips with Super U nitrogen, which features stabilizer technology, out-yielded forages fertilized with unprotected N.
· Treatments of DuraCor-impregnated fertilizer had a significant reduction in weeds compared to non-treated areas.
· The strip treated with Chaparral herbicide showed noticeable fescue seed head reduction.

“Chaparral is a great tool to reduce weed pressure as well as reduce fescue seed heads which, in turn, improve animal weight gain and reduce the toxic effect of fescue,” Moore said, adding that he works with producers who have had a great deal of success with the herbicide.

With Spriggs’ native grass fields, Jones and Moore discussed the increase in summer forage growth and the benefits it gives producers in hot weather and under drought conditions.

“On average, a cow on fescue gains about 1 pound per week versus about 3 pounds on native grasses,” Moore said.

For Spriggs, a combination of cool- and warm-season pastures are combined with fescue to supply a more constant supply of high-quality forage throughout the season. He said that his farm’s warm-season grasses get his cattle through the summer slump.

DavidMFA range and pasture specialist David Moore discusses the importance of using impregnated fertilizer for a one pass “weed-and-feed” program. In MFA trials, treatments of DuraCor-impregnated fertilizer significantly reduced weeds compared to non-treated areas.“I use about five different varieties on the different pastures,” he explained. “I have an area where I can move the cows from paddock to paddock every five days from June until the end of August.”

Native grasses are a little more difficult to establish, Moore cautioned, and may need a year or two before they can be grazed. Management is key. Native grass seedlings do not compete well with weeds, Moore said, and carefully timed rotational grazing is also required to maintain productive warm-season grass stands.

And while native grass seed and establishment practices can be costly, Jones pointed out that several cost-share opportunities are available to help defray those expenses for producers.

“Getting more native grasses on Missouri farms and ranches is a top priority for all conservation partners,” Jones said, “and they are putting their money where their mouth is.”

The 2024 Forage Tour is scheduled for Thursday, July 25, at the University of Missouri’s Research Farm in Linneus, Mo. Jones and Moore will showcase the latest range and pasture products and discuss technologies and management applications. For more information on the tour, native grass establishment and cost-share opportunities or other best practices in forage production, contact Landry Jones at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or David Moore at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


Photo by Richard Gardner, bugwood.orgBEWARE OF THIS PERILOUS PLANT
One of the most toxic plants in pastures—perilla mint—is also one of the most prevalent across MFA territory. This spring, cattle deaths caused by perilla mint are on the rise, said David Moore, MFA range and pasture specialist, who warns producers to be on the lookout for this dangerous weed.

“Cattle typically leave it alone, preferring to eat more palatable forages, but they are consuming more this year because we are short on both grass and hay,” Moore said.  “Perilla mint is toxic when green, crunchy brown or in hay and silage. I’ve received several calls recently that cattle are eating the tops out of perilla mint and are soon found dead.”

This summer annual, also known as rattlesnake weed, purple mint and beefsteak plant, likes to live in shaded areas and along stream banks. Moore encourages producers to plan to spray areas where perilla mint has appeared in the past. He suggests using a boomless nozzle sprayer with 18-20 ounces per acre of DuraCor plus Astute Xtra in late April or early May to help prevent and control most perilla mint. An alternative is to use fertilizer impregnated with DuraCor.

“Spray into the edges of woodlines as well as the first 30 to 50 feet outside wooded areas,” he said. “It’s also a good idea to move cattle out of treated areas for two weeks.”

For more information and management tips, contact Moore at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or your local MFA livestock specialist or agronomist.

CLICK TO READ the full April 2024 Issue of Today's Farmer magazine.

 

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Picturing safe practices

MFA youth illustrate ideas to avoid danger on the farm, at the workplace

SHIELD blueNo one can take your place. That was the theme of last year’s National Farm Safety and Health Week, which is observed each September. It’s also a fitting reminder as the busy spring season begins and MFA continues to emphasize safety at work and on the farm.

When MFA relaunched its workplace safety program in 2015 as “SHIELD: Safe Habits Improve Employees’ Lives Daily,” the goal of the behavior-based system was to reduce workplace accidents. The program relies on employees throughout the company being trained to talk about safety with their fellow workers. From truck drivers to office staff to personnel at feed mills and fertilizer plants, MFA employees have many conversations about safe work practices and document those discussions. In fact, some 21,700 safety conversations were logged last year.

The company also continues to remind employees that they have very important reasons to make safety a motivator—children and other family members. That’s why MFA holds an annual Farm Safety Poster Contest to help us picture these positive practices through the eyes of the next generation.
Again this year, we asked children and grandchildren of MFA employees and affiliates to share their ideas about safety on the job and on the farm. All MFA staff members were allowed to vote for their favorite poster in each class as well as choose “Best of Show” through the company’s intranet, myMFA. We’re proud to feature this year’s top entries here in Today’s Farmer.

 


 

Best of show

Maggie McDowell
Columbia, MO
A sixth-grader at Smithton Middle School in Columbia, Mo., Maggie is the daughter of Ryan and Carla McDowell. Ryan is manager of California Agri Services.

 

 

 

 


Grades K-1

Asher Johnson
Birch Tree, Mo

A first-grader at Mountain View Elementary School in Birch Tree, Mo., Asher is the daughter of Justin and Kay-Lee Johnson. Justin is a plant operator at MFA Agri Services in Birch Tree.

 

 

EyesOnRoadGrades 2-3

June Roark
Lamar, Mo

A home-schooled third-grader, June is the daughter of Justin and Julia Roark of Lamar, Mo. Justin is a DOT Inspector in MFA’s Safety, Environmental and Regulatory Department.

 

 

EyesOnRoad2
Grades 4-6

Jillian Roark
Lamar, Mo

A home-schooled fifth-grader, Jillian is the daughter of Justin and Julia Roark of Lamar, Mo. Justin is a DOT Inspector in MFA’s Safety, Environmental and Regulatory Department.



CLICK TO READ the full April 2024 Issue of Today's Farmer magazine.

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