FRANKFORD, Mo. -- Black bears have been making a comeback in Missouri over the past few decades, and their range has been gradually expanding, as well.
While most of the state's bears live in southern Missouri, bears also have been spotted in other parts of the state -- even in Northeast Missouri as far north as the Iowa line.
"Right now the primary bear range in Missouri is south of Interstate 44 -- pretty much the southern third of the state," said Laura Conlee, a furbearer biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation and one of the state's top bear researchers. "That coincides with some of our largest forested tracts of land and some of our more undeveloped areas. But we do see bears coming up into other parts of the state."
An interactive map posted on the Department of Conservation's website -- bit.ly/2CGFixc -- shows that a number of black bear sightings have been reported in Northeast Missouri over the past 10 years.
The closest in proximity to Quincy, Ill., was reported in 2009 near Frankford in Pike County, Mo., about 40 miles south of Quincy.
The map shows that another bear was spotted in southwest Pike County in 2012, while one showed up near the Pike/Lincoln County line in 2015.
Elsewhere, a black bear was reported in western Shelby County in 2016; one was seen in Macon County in 2017; and four bear sightings were reported in the vicinity of Kirksville in Audrain County in 2012, 2013, 2016 and 2017, according to the map.
But those aren't the only times bears have been reported in Northeast Missouri. An older map published in the state's 2008 "Management Plan for the Black Bear in Missouri" indicates that two bear sightings were reported in Lewis County, one in Marion County and one in Ralls County between 1987 and 2008.
Conlee said that while the vast majority of the state's bear population resides in southern Missouri, "we do get some bear sightings in what most people would consider odd parts of the state."
That includes Northeast Missouri.
Conlee said young male black bears in particular are known to wander extensively once they are pushed out by the mother at about 18 months of age.
"They're kind of looking for a place to set up shop," she said. "These young males can move huge distances."
Conlee recalled one young bear that was captured by Conservation personnel in Christian County in southwest Missouri. It was fitted with a GPS-enabled collar so its whereabouts could be tracked.
"He made some pretty long-range movements," she said, noting how the bear eventually ended up in Warren County, about halfway between Columbia and St. Louis. "He just went on this very long walkabout and has since headed back south. He resides now in the Washington County area south of the Missouri River."
Conlee said Missouri's black bear population was abundant in the 18th and 19th centuries. But the species declined dramatically after early settlers killed many bears for their meat and fur. Habitat loss also contributed to their demise. By the early 1900s, bears had become fairly rare in the Ozarks and practically extinct in other parts of the state.
But things started changing in the late 1950s and early 1960s after Arkansas launched a successful stocking program by bringing in black bears from Minnesota and Canada.
"We probably received some bears from their expanding population coming up into Missouri and supplementing our small remnant population," Conlee said. "Since then, we've seen a growing population" of bears in Missouri. We believe that number is increasing and the range of bears is expanding."
She said an ongoing research project that began in 2012 indicates that Missouri's black bear population has now reached between 300 and 350 animals.
Bears are not considered an endangered species in Missouri, but the state's wildlife code affords them some protection by not allowing a hunting or trapping season. This might change, however, if the bear population continues to flourish.
Conlee said if and when the bear population reaches the 500 benchmark, the Department of Conservation will consider launching a limited hunting season for bears.
Until then, bears will be off-limits to hunting. But landowners will still be allowed to shoot a bear if the animal is causing damage or attacking livestock.
Conlee said bear confrontations with humans are rare because bears tend to shy away from people and like to stay in forested areas, where there isn't much human traffic.
"As the population grows, the likelihood of seeing a bear increases, but it's still a rare occurrence," she said.
More information about Missouri's bears -- including photos, videos and tips on what to do if confronted by a bear -- is available on the state's newly revamped website.
Conlee said an interactive "story map" feature focusing on bear sightings will be added this spring.