By Tom Cross
It’s taken more than 150 years, but bears are back in Ohio through the wondering nature of the bears themselves, as they seek new territory to stake out a claim.
Ohioans can thank our neighbors to the east and south which have growing and, in some cases, burgeoning populations of these hibernating mammals.
In Pennsylvania, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, there are an estimated 18,000 bears. In West Virginia, according to the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, the bear population is estimated at 10,000, and there are approximately 350 bears in Kentucky, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.
“Yes, bear sightings and reports are increasing in Ohio, especially in the southeast and southwest corners of the state,” said biologist Suzie Prange with the Ohio Division of Wildlife. “Gallia, Scioto and Adams counties have all experienced an increase in sightings.”
Although Ashtabula and Trumbull counties continue to have the most confirmed reports from wandering Pennsylvania bears, southwest and southeast Ohio are where the bears are starting to show up with increased frequency.
“I estimate there were at least 20 additional confirmed bear sightings from Adams up through Washington County in 2015,” Prange said.
An unconfirmed sighting is simply a report of a bear. A confirmed sighting is one with proof such as tracks or photos. A bear track is easy to distinguish. Unlike a canine, bears have five toes and usually claw marks can be seen.
In June 2015, David and Laura Hughes of Pataskala, Ohio, had spent a morning hiking in Shawnee State Forest searching for the elusive golden banded skipper butterfly. While slowly driving the forest road just below McBride Lake, they suddenly saw a bear dash across the gravel road ahead of them.
They pulled off in a grassy area next to the bridge that crosses Pond Run Creek. They looked and listened as birds squawked at the bear while it moved slowly and unseen through the thick forest.
David Hughes got out of the car, grabbed his camera and they both headed for the bridge, hoping for another view of the bruin. Five long minutes had passed and the bear finally stepped into the creek about 75 yards away, paused and briefly looked toward them, rewarding them with the stunning sight and a great photo — and confirmation — of a black bear.
“We were excited and celebrating after we saw the bear,” said David Hughes. “We came to see butterflies and got a bear. Not a bad way to spend the day.”
Jenny Richards, a naturalist at Shawnee State Forest, said every year in her 17 years at Shawnee, somebody has reported a bear.
“Last summer, two were reported in the campground,” Richards said. “Bears have been reported crossing state Route 125 through Shawnee and, near the state park lodge on Lampback Run Trail, bear scat was found.”
Some early attempts to re-establish bears were not successful due to the wondering nature of the animal. Back in 1989, with little fanfare and much secrecy, a nuisance black bear was trapped in northeast Ohio by the Division of Wildlife and transported to Upper Twin Creek in Shawnee State Forest.
The press was kept at bay, as the location of the release was to be secret. However, if you had connections, the secret wasn’t so secret. Upper Twin Creek, in addition to being remote, had a reputation in those days as a haven for deer poachers.
However, it wasn’t poachers. The bear didn’t like the food service on Upper Twin and, within a week, swam the Ohio River ending up at a pizzeria in Vanceburg, Ky., eating out of a dumpster. Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources officials were called to the scene and had to dispatch the problematic bear.
And therein lies the problem with bears: They love a free meal.
Not all bear stories end as tragically as that one. A number of years back, a female bear was captured at a mining operation in West Virginia and fitted with a bright red radio collar to track its movements. A large male bear moved into the area, which the female didn’t like, and promptly moved out, crossing the Ohio River at Point Pleasant and heading west into Ohio.
Because of the bright red collar, the bear was spotted and reported hundreds of times as she made her way through the state, and biologists were able to track her movements through the radio signal. It was like dots on a map as each report came in tracking her odyssey into southwest Ohio, moving 20 to 30 miles a day.
She became quite a celebrity and eventually ended up treed by a yard dog in suburban Grove City. Wildlife officers tranquilized the bear and handed her over to West Virginia officials, who turned her loose back where she came from, and speculated that she made peace with the big male bear.
According to Prange, black bears have a 25 to 30 square-mile home range. Biologists also estimate there may be as many as 50 bears that call Ohio home, mostly juvenile males searching for a new residence.
Last November, Ohio Department of Natural Resources biologists were able to place a radio collar on a male black bear captured in Vinton County. At last report, according to the ODNR, the bear had been tracked in Vinton, Ross and Hocking counties.
According to Prange, a small population of resident bears is believed to be present in the Meigs, Athens, Washington and Lawrence counties area. Another small population is in Portage County. The counties of Hocking, Vinton, Jackson and Ross have bears. Reports of a bear seen in late November lend credence to a possible population starting in Adams, Scioto and Pike counties.
Prange points out that Ohio bears are likely to head for dens by Thanksgiving, male bears tend to den later. Bears emerge from the dens in early to mid March, pregnant females a bit longer. Bear sightings in March and April indicate resident bears, sightings in June and July are young male bears roaming and looking for new territory.
So, be on the lookout. Bears are coming to Ohio.
THE BEAR FACTS
According to the Ohio Division of Wildlife
• An estimated 80 to 100 different individual bears were reported in Ohio in 2015.
• An adult bear weighs between 125 to 250 pounds or more.
• The height of an adult bear on all fours is 2 1/2 to 3 feet.
• The height of an adult bear when standing is 4 to 6 feet.
• A bear’s life expectancy is 15 to 25 years in the wild.
• The home range for adult males is 100 to 125 square miles.
• The home range for adult females is 25 to 50 square miles.
• Peak breeding time is June through July.
• Cubs are born January through February.
• A first-year female will give birth to one cub; two to three cubs thereafter.
• A female will have one litter per year.
• The breeding age of females is 3 1/2 years old. They breed every other year.
• Bears are omnivorous. They feed on fruit, vegetables, berries, acorns, insects, carrion, fish, etc.
• Their peak activity is mornings and evenings and they are nocturnal.
• Black bears are considered a state endangered species in Ohio.