Who let the bears in?

Jordan Meier and Jonathan Riley / news@morningsun.net
A black bear was spotted near the corner of East 540th Ave (Quincy) and South 260th Street just east of Pittsburg on Sunday afternoon.

PITTSBURG, Kan. — Over a hundred years ago, black bears were common occupants of the southeast and southwest areas of Kansas, roaming freely before they were extirpated by the late 1800s.  

However, recently more and more sightings of American black bears have been occurring in southeast Kansas. This week alone there have been two black bear sightings, one in Baxter Springs and one outside of Pittsburg.  

Derek Prestholt, who works at Watco and lives in rural Crawford County just east of Pittsburg, said his wife was driving home Sunday afternoon when she was surprised to see a black bear running across a nearby field — though not so surprised that she failed to capture a video of it. 

“I’ve lived in Southeast Kansas pretty much my whole life and been an avid outdoorsman, and I’ve never, never come across a bear in this area, so it was pretty surprising, to say the least,” Prestholt said. 

It was around 1 p.m. Sunday when his wife saw the bear near the corner of East 540th Ave (Quincy) and South 260th Street, he said. 

“It ran and kind of ducked down in the middle of the field under a tree and then it ended up kind of running back into the wheat field, which is the field right between where it was video’d and my house,” Prestholt said. “I think that’s where it still is.” 

Prestholt is not too worried about the bear, he said, but the presence of one or more of the animals in the area is something people should be mindful of, especially if they have children or dogs, or if they’re out hunting or doing other outdoor activities. People should be careful not to leave trash outside where it could attract a bear, he said. 

“It’s kind of exciting that it’s hanging out there at the house,” Prestholt said, “so I’m just trying to observe it at this point, keep an eye on it, and keep my distance.” 

According to Professor Andrew George, a biology and wildlife professor who specializes in birds and reptiles at Pittsburg State University, the recent sighting can be attributed to growing population numbers in surrounding state, namely Missouri.  

"The population in Missouri is increasing and has been for years. Missouri has hundreds of bears, and they’re growing something like nine percent per year last I read,” he said. “We do not have a population of black bears in Kansas.”  

George said the bears, young and usually male, have most likely just left their mothers and are roaming looking for somewhere to call home as their ideal habitats become more and more crowded.  

“They’re usually just passing through,” he said. “The bears that are showing up in Kansas, do not live in Kansas, or they weren’t born in Kansas rather.”  

However, George emphasized that Kansas would mostly likely not be their future homes. He said black bears are common to hardwood forests, like those in the Ozarks area, and were probably following a river or creek of some sort.  

“They don’t live in open country, they don’t live in grassland, they don’t live in crop fields,” he said. “So the ones that are passing through tend to follow corridors, so rivers.”  

Most bear-human interactions, according to George, are the result of the bears looking for food.  

“They get in people's garbage, bird feeders, pet food, that kind of stuff,” he said.  

As bear sightings become more common, the U.S National Park Service recommends you do the following if faced with a close encounter with a black bear:

  • Identify yourself by talking calmly so the bear knows you are a human and not a prey animal but remain as still as possible.  
  • Make yourselves look as large as possible.  
  • Leave the area.  

The National Park Service also notes that while it is very rare, if you are attacked by a black bear, you should not play dead. They recommend trying “to escape to a secure place such as a car or building. If escape is not possible, try to fight back using any object available. Concentrate your kicks and blows on the bear's face and muzzle.”  

Matt Peek, Emporia-based research biologist for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, also discussed the recent bear sightings in an interview with the Topeka Capital-Journal

"Regarding human safety, people should treat them with respect," Peek said. "Most notably, do not approach or attempt to get close to them, do not run away from them and — in the very rare case of a black bear attack on a person — fight back." 

Overall, both George and the National Park service emphasize that bears will leave you alone if you do the same to them.  

“If someone sees a black bear they should look at it and appreciate it,” George said, “I mean there is nothing to be afraid of, but you need to respect them. You should always respect wild animals.”