When a large, furry shape blocked his path early Monday morning, Jeremy Deardeuff said he did not immediately realize it was a black bear.
Deardeuff said the shape ran across Highway 133 just as he was coming around a curve. He had no time to slow down or swerve to avoid it. Not until his car connected with the animal did he realize it was a bear.
Fortunately, Deardeuff was unhurt, and the damage to his Honda Accord consisted of a few dents and a broken headlight. The bear did not survive the encounter. Deardeuff said he and everyone in his family is an avid hunter and fisher, and none of them have ever seen a black bear, which only added to his surprise Monday morning.
Biologists say Missouri's bear population is rising slowly. Lori Eggert, a biological sciences professor at the University of Missouri, said black bears are native to the state but had virtually disappeared by the 1920s. Arkansas began reintroducing black bears to its forests in 1958, and those bears gradually drifted northward. Eggert said Missouri is now home to between 250 and 350 bears, mostly in the Ozarks region.
Unlike grizzly bears, Eggert said black bears are not an aggressive species. She said they usually eat nuts and berries and rarely attack humans. Still, Eggert said anyone camping in bear country should make sure food is hoisted out of the bears' reach. Campers should avoid keeping food in or near tents. She said homeowners should protect their garbage in much the same way they protect it from raccoons. Pet food and bird feeders can attract bears as well. If you see a bear while hiking, Eggert said you should stand up tall and spread your arms to appear bigger, face the bear and slowly back away. She said the bear is more likely to run away in an encounter like this.
Eggert said Missouri's growing black bear population bodes well for the state's ecosystem.
"To me, it's an indication that our forests have recovered," she said, explaining Missouri lost a lot of forest to logging in the early 20th century.
"One of the reasons that we lost a lot of our native species is because we didn't have the kind of healthy habitats they needed. So, the black bear recovering in Missouri is just one of the signs that our habitats are recovering."
Conservation officials say they will test the dead bear's DNA to find out where it came from.