In the almost-200 years that Missouri has been a state, bears have had an interesting relationship with Missourians.
As temperatures begin to warm and spring arrives, this is the time of year when black bears emerge from winter dormancy and begin foraging and, in the case of some females, raising cubs.
It’s estimated Missouri’s current bear population is somewhere around 300-350 animals scattered across the state’s southern half.
Seeing a bear in Missouri is considered a wildlife viewing novelty because many people can remember a time when bears were virtually non-existent in Missouri.
However, that wasn’t always the case.
Black bears (the only bear species in Missouri) ranged across much of the state in pre-settlement times. As Missouri became settled, the state’s bear population began to dwindle. Bears were shot for their meat and also because of the alarm they caused (whether they were harming anything or not).
Another factor that contributed to the bear’s demise in Missouri and in a number of other states was the well-documented, but largely forgotten, market for bear grease that existed for a period in the 19th century.
Indians had long valued bear grease – which is oil rendered from a bear’s fatty tissue – for cooking, hair treatment, insect repellent and other uses.
The value of this bear by-product was passed on to early settlers and, by the early 1800’s, bear grease was a marketable commodity. Bear oil was a valued ingredient of men’s hair tonic, soaps, and several leather-treatment products.