Black bears were wiped out in Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma by the 1920s by unregulated hunting and habitat loss, but a recent study by wildlife researchers found hundreds of the bears ambling through forests in southern Missouri, a release from the University of Missouri said.
Biologists taking part in the joint study of the University of Missouri, Mississippi State University and Missouri Department of Conservation biologists warn that although the bear population is still small, outdoor recreationists and homeowners should take precautions in the Ozark forest to avoid attracting them.
"Black bears normally do not attack humans, but they will ransack picnic baskets, tear through garbage bags or even enter buildings looking for food," MU biological science Professor Lori Eggert said.
"Although some Missourians may be concerned, the return of black bears to Missouri is actually a good sign. It means parts of the state's forests are returning to a healthy biological balance after nearly two centuries of intensive logging and exploitation."
Using the genetic fingerprints of bears in Missouri, Eggert and her colleagues traced their origin back to Arkansas where the bear population is in the thousands.
While most appear to be descendants of bears originally reintroduced to the region from populations in Minnesota and Manitoba, Canada, some had genetic signatures that suggested they may be descendants of a tiny population of bears that managed to survive unnoticed in the Ozark wilderness after the rest of the region's population had died out, researchers said.
"The larger the gene pool of bears in the region, the healthier the population will be as it recovers," Eggert said. "If they do indeed exist, these remnant populations of black bears may serve as valuable reservoirs of genetic diversity."