Conservation Agent Brad Hadley holds a bear cub during a winter den check in March as part of the Missouri Black Bear Project. The goal of the project is to get an estimate of the state's black bear population as well as study their preferred habitat and habits. The department has recently begun trapping for Black bears again in Southeast Missouri as part of this same project.(MDC photo)
Conservation agents are official representatives of the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) in every county, and, particularly in rural counties, it's safe to say most people know "their" agent. Agents, in turn, know "their" assigned county just as well. So when an MDC Biologist (or other Department personnel) from outside the area needs access to private land or to needs to know the quickest way to get to a particular location, it's often the local conservation agent who is best suited to help. This is how Conservation Agent Brad Hadley of Shannon County first became involved with the Missouri Bear Project, but it's not how he first got to know the largest and heaviest mammal found in Missouri, Ursus americanus, better known as the Black bear.
Hadley first worked with black bears in 1996, while he was a graduate student at what was then known as Southwest Missouri State University. Dr. Lynn Robbins was the primary mammalogy professor at the university and, through his contacts in the Arkansas Game and Fish Department (AG&F), the professor provided opportunity for his students to travel to the Boston Mountains of northwest Arkansas to be exposed to black bear den research work. Even though that experience was several years ago, Hadley still remembers the first cold February morning he worked on the project.
"AG&F used their aircraft prior to that day to get relatively close radio locations on several collared sows," Hadley said. "We drove as near as we could and then used hand-held radio receivers to literally walk in to the bears' locations."
Those days consisted of long hikes across rugged terrain and dense habitat, making it all the more memorable for Hadley.
"When the Missouri Black Bear Project was initiated some fourteen years later, I could hardly wait to volunteer to help," Hadley said.
Now, working on the Missouri Black Bear Project with MDC's lead on the project, Jeff Beringer, Hadley assists in locating baiting and trapping sites, securing permission from landowners if areas are on private land, pre-baiting and setting up cameras to monitor bait sites, setting traps for and trapping bears, working up captured bears, monitoring for and recovering "lost" collars, and, like he did in Arkansas, working winter den sites.
Black bears give birth to their cubs while in a deep winter sleep, so biologists seek out den sites to determine how many cubs are born. For management purposes, the Conservation Department is working to determine an estimate of the state's black bear population and reproduction rates can contribute significantly to that estimate. Winter den visits also allow biologists to determine the sex ratio of the cubs being born. By collecting hair samples from the cubs, parentage can be determined.
"We obviously know which sow is the mother, but DNA from the cub's hair can also tell us who its father is," Hadley explained.
By comparing the numbers of samples of "known" versus "unknown" DNA, the biologists get an idea of how many bears are in Missouri. They also use the winter den visit as a time to replace the sows' collars, as batteries don't last forever. They gather information about the den itself; whether it's on a south-facing ridge top, is in a rock crevice, hollow tree, or blown-down tree top, if it's in an old forest, regeneration harvest site, or more open woodland, and even how far it is from the nearest road or trail.
"Recording these attributes of winter dens allows the bears to 'tell' us what works for them and then conservation area managers can use the information in their long-range planning to ensure we are adequately providing what bears need," Hadley said.
While MDC is meeting its goals through the Missouri Black Bear Project to estimate the population, habitat uses and general habits of bears in the state, there's more to the work for Hadley. He said though holding a black bear cub in Arkansas all those years ago was an experience he would never forget, the opportunity hold a Missouri black bear cub, one that was born some six or seven miles from where he lives, easily overshadowed the first experience.
"I guess the best way to think about it is this; in the first instance the cub was where it belonged but I wasn't," he said. "In the second, both the cub and I were where we belonged. It comes down to having a mutual sense of place with a truly incredible animal."
The Missouri Black Bear Project is ongoing across southern Missouri, where suitable habitat has produced numerous black bear reports over more than a decade. For more information about black bears in Missouri and the Missouri Black Bear Project, go online to www.mdc.mo.gov.