It is almost becoming commonplace this time of year, the moving of a black bear through our part of the state, and the past few weeks have been no exception with reports of a bear passing through Meigs County.
While local bear sightings no longer make front-page news like they did 25-to-30 years ago, they are still unusual enough to be an interesting topic of conversation. For the record, I have never seen a bear in Ohio, but I am sure that will change.
As a species, the black bear, Ursus americanus (or America’s bear – a fitting moniker for this widespread species), is widespread throughout North America including the lower 48 states, northern Mexico, Canada and much of Alaska. Although their range is huge, they not necessarily common throughout all parts of it (preferring the forested parts of the range).
Although called black bears, they can also be brown, cinnamon, combinations, or even white. Juvenile male bears, like the one passing through Meigs County, and the ones most commonly seen in Ohio, generally weigh between 125-250 pounds and are 5-6 feet in length, standing about three feet high at the shoulder. Black bears tend to be more active at dawn and dusk, and can eat pretty much anything. They have a large home range, often exceeding 100 square miles for males and more than 50 miles for females.
While black bears are native to Ohio, unregulated hunting and de-forestation in the early 1800s greatly reduced their numbers, and the few remaining bears were shot or trapped resulting in the black bear being extirpated (being made locally extinct) from Ohio shortly before the U.S. Civil War. Today the Ohio Department of Natural Resources-Division of Wildlife estimates that Ohio is home to a small, but growing population of 50-100 bears. They are an Ohio endangered species and protected by law.
Most bear sightings in Ohio are those of a young male bear in search of new territory that swims across the Ohio River, ventures into southeastern Ohio, and usually heads back across the river. A bear caught in neighboring Vinton County in 2015 and outfitted with a radio collar quickly headed east across West Virginia and deep into the Appalachian Mountains.
People involved in wildlife can literally track the movements of these bears from the phone calls and trail camera photos of the people who see them – spotting a black bear still stirs up a little excitement. Although the bears usually leave the state, they, but occasionally wander into populated areas – oftentimes resulting in conflicts with humans where the bear ultimately loses – or are struck and killed by automobiles. The number of sightings has trended generally upwards since 1998.
So what you should do if you observe a black bear? ODNR in their fact sheet about black bears urges people to remember the acronym AWARE: Act calm and do not run; Warn the bear that you are near; Allow space between you and the bear; Raise your hands above your head to appear larger; Exit the area.
What not to do when you spot a bear: don’t get carried away or harm it (remember they are protected in Ohio), and don’t try to feed it or leave food out for it. Well-meaning people can get bears accustomed to handouts and cause them to lose their fear of people; remember, a fed bear is a dead bear. The last thing anyone wants is for a juvenile black bear to become a juvenile delinquent black bear.
Basically, leave it alone, enjoy the sight, and report it – even if the sighting can’t be verified through photographs, tracks, multiple sightings, damage, or scat, every report adds to the store of collected knowledge about black bears visiting the state. Ohio bear sightings can be reported online anytime at https://apps.ohiodnr.gov/wildlife/speciessighting/ or by calling 1-800-WILDLIFE.
Jim Freeman is the wildlife specialist for the Meigs Soil and Water Conservation District. He can be contacted weekdays at 740-992-4282 or at firstname.lastname@example.org