ST. LOUIS – It’s that time of year again to be bear-aware. Missouri conservation agents say bears are very active throughout the spring, and their presence around the St. Louis metro seems to be growing in recent years.

Human encounters with bears are not particularly common, but they can happen if you venture out into the wilderness. Some have even been spotted along Missouri streets in recent years.

What should you do if you happen to be nearby a bear? Trying to minimize head-on interactions or sources of conflict could mitigate a scary situation. In contrast, authorities say it’s not a good idea to make contact with the bear. And to some extent, how you do so can even be illegal in Missouri, even if you leave the encounter unscathed.

The Salem Police Department in Dent County said it recently received multiple calls about a bear sighting near a rural road. While acknowledging this in a Facebook post, police shared an important piece of advice:

“Please do not wrestle the bear if you come in contact. Bear wrestling is illegal in the state of Missouri.”

Is it true that bear wrestling is illegal in Missouri? The Salem Police Department is indeed correct, according to Missouri state statues.

Per Missouri statute 578.176, “a person commits the offense of bear wrestling” if they promote, conduct or stage bear wrestling, permits bear wrestling to be done on any premise under their control or literally wrestle a bear. Anyone accused of such offense could face a Class A misdemeanor.

Nexstar affiliate WHNT in Huntsville, Alabama came to a similar conclusion on the matter of bear wrestling in their state.

WHNT found the practice of humans wrestling bears became common in the 20th century, mostly for entertainment purposes rather than by pure chance of survival. The practice is allegedly how famous Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant got his nickname. It’s also portrayed in fictional movies like Will Ferrell-starred film Semi-Pro.

Later in the 20th century, animal rights activists started taking notice. It wasn’t until 1996 that bear wrestling was deemed illegal in Alabama. Many states, like Missouri, followed up with similar laws around that timeframe.

It’s worth noting that Missouri’s statue also makes it illegal to collect admission fees for wrestling a bear, purchase a bear for the purpose of wrestling it, train a bear for wrestling or expose a bear to surgery in anticipation of wrestling. The specific statute with all of these rules was last updated in January 2017.

On a related note, the Missouri Department of Conservation advises the public to never offer bears food as it could lead them to search for more food and damage property along the way.