JEFFERSON CITY, MO. Several times this month, people living or visiting in Missouri will look out back doors or camper windows and be startled to see black bears chowing down on dog food or rummaging around in garbage.
In most cases, the marauding bruins will scamper into the woods at the first sign of human activity, never to be seen again.
But for a few people, the encounter will prove troublesome or even dangerous.
The Department of Conservation estimates the state's bear population at 150 to 300 animals.
This small number, together with the animals' shy nature, makes bear encounters relatively rare. Still, the agency receives more than 200 reports of black bear sightings each year.
In Missouri, the number of nuisance bear reports begins to climb in April and peaks from mid-May to mid-June.
Conservation Department furbearer biologist Dave Hamilton says a little knowledge goes a long way toward preventing such encounters from turning into serious trouble.
"This is a very difficult time for bears," Hamilton said. "When the weather warms up they get more active. Bear food is scarce this time of year, and they get really hungry."
Bears are constantly alert for new food sources in early summer. Sometimes their hunger overwhelms their natural shyness.
If they smell livestock feed, garbage or even birdseed, they may venture close to homes or businesses to check it out.
Compounding the problem is the fact that female bears with two-year-old cubs chase off their young at this time of year so they can mate again.
Young, inexperienced bears may resort to food sources that more experienced adults would avoid.
"Bears are still enough of a novelty in Missouri that most people are excited when they see one rummaging around in their back yard," Hamilton said. "But unless they are discouraged right away, bears can develop unhealthy habits."
Hamilton recommends talking, whistling or making other sounds to warn bears of your approach when hiking.
If you encounter a bear and it has not seen you, leave the area quietly and quickly.
If the bear is aware of your presence, avoid making eye contact, which bears perceive as a threat.
Back away while speaking in a normal tone of voice. Don't run or make sudden movements.
If attacked, fight back. Black bears have been driven away when people fought back with rocks, sticks, even bare hands.