February 2008 Issue
Black bears are lumbering back into Ohio, even appearing in back yards and at the occasional small-town festival.
Save for a prolonged warm spell during which they might emerge for a brief look-see, the black bears of Ohio are hunkered down. Males mostly snooze through the shadow and darkness of winter. Females doze alongside year-old cubs that soon after awakening will be sent out on their own. Other sows are giving birth to next winter’s bedfellows. The colder, leaner and bleaker the season, the deeper is bear sleep.
That black bears, after an absence of 100 years, slumber this winter on Ohio soil can be little doubted.
Suzie Prange, an Ohio Division of Wildlife biologist who keeps an eye on bears, estimates the state holds between 50 and 100 resident bruins. Virtually all live in the heavily wooded northeastern, eastern and southeastern counties.
The fact that sows with cubs occasionally are spotted distant from West Virginia and Pennsylvania indicates bears call Ohio home, Prange says. Females typically stay within a 25-square-mile area, meaning mothers with offspring generally are rooted close to where they are encountered.
Seen most often, though, are the wandering juvenile males on a mission to claim a patch of agreeable ground after being cast from a long-attending mother’s side. The sightings of young bears come every spring and early summer. More and more they come.
A black bear, drifting eastward from parts unknown like a whirl of turbulent June air, might have been the least welcome out-of-towner to drop in on the 2007 Minerva Homecoming Festival. True, the young bruin restricted its display of bad manners to dining at backyard bird feeders during a two-day stay.
Yet, the bumming bear’s untimely presence in the town about 30 miles east-southeast of Canton forced public merriment to end prematurely on a Friday evening, turning the penultimate night of a four-day celebration into something less cheery and more anxiety-producing than organizers had planned.
Wildlife division biologists made the precautionary recommendation to shut down. Minerva authorities were told the 2-year-old, 170-pound bear wasn’t likely to hurt anyone. On the other hand, if not given every reason to leave — or if offered added reason to stay — the impressionable young male, they were told, might get hooked on the contents of garbage cans and on other edibles characteristic of human haunts.
Turning a bear into a trash-food junkie, pronounced the division’s Scott Peters, would do neither Ohio citizens nor the animal much good. While attacks on people remain rare, confrontations occur most often when a bear associates humans with food. Bird feeders filled with the likes of cracked corn and sunflower seeds seem to have particular appeal.
The bear is set up for survival in part by an eclectic palate that demands exclusively neither animal nor vegetable and gladly will settle for either. True omnivores, black bears make entrees out of tree bark, nuts, berries, a variety of plants, carrion, bees, yellow jackets, termites, insect larvae, rodents and young deer. But a bear too drawn to human leftovers ultimately puts its life in danger.
Wildlife biologist Dave Swanson, who teaches at Hocking College in Athens County, was for many years Ohio’s point man on bear research. Since bears started showing up regularly in the mid-1980s, he says, “The Division of Wildlife has killed three bears that were heading for populated areas, and two people have shot bears that were entering their homes. That’s five bears. Another six bears have been trapped and relocated.”
Bears aren’t necessarily homicidal, but they do kill humans. Why a few become killers isn’t known in each instance, but black bears are top-of-the-food-chain predators in most habitats. Some hostilities initiated by sows involve perceived threats to cubs. Some attacks could be driven by hunger.
Found only in North America, the widely distributed black bear numbers about 800,000, comprising 16 subspecies that come in black, brown, cinnamon, blonde and white permutations. Unlike the ferocious grizzlies of the West, black bears long have dwelled in the wooded East. The bears, scientifically named Ursus americanus, generally weigh between 200 and 400 pounds, although a large male can exceed 600 pounds.
While black bears sometimes turn humans into victims, far more often it’s the other way around. In Ohio, cars and trucks are the most effective killers, although a few years ago a black bear was killed by a deer hunter who thought she and her son were under attack.
Questioned afterward about slaying a protected animal, the woman responded: How was she to know what the bear had in mind?
So the record shows that the fact bears are listed as endangered in Ohio doesn’t always save them. Their unsettled status, however, typically gives roaming bears a little extra length on the leash. Anyone not authorized who shoots or otherwise harms a bear has a lot of explaining to do, potentially in court.
The Minerva bear, probably attracted to the aroma of festival food, held his ground through Saturday morning before moving on with his dignity and his life intact. “The last time it was spotted,” Robert First, the relieved Minerva police chief, told a Canton newspaper, “it was headed for Columbiana County.”
Where the animals come from isn’t much of a mystery. Pennsylvania’s bear population is estimated to be about 15,000 and West Virginia’s about 10,000. Bear sightings in recent years have been confirmed in 43 of Ohio’s 88 counties. Unconfirmed reports have occurred in another 10. Sightings generally have trended upward for almost 30 years, although 165 in 2002 and 128 in 2001 have been peaks in modern times. The total in 2006 was 113. The number of encounters doesn’t correspond to actual bear numbers; many take place along the path of a single itinerant bear.
Given that the chance of bumping into a black bear remains infrequent enough to make the local news, it’s worth pondering that a generation and more ago the likelihood was practically nil. But that, too, represented a dramatic change from the historic status quo.
When Ohio became a state in 1803, the heavily forested land still held numerous bears and, with a human population of fewer than 50,000, a relative handful of people. By mid-century, Homo sapiens dominated the land and black bears were all but gone.
During the millennia in which they apparently thrived, the bears of what became Ohio outlasted massive ice sheets, mastodons and a menagerie of other top predators, such as saber-toothed tigers, giant short-faced bears and indigenous peoples. The black bear population, however, went down fast not long after the arrival of settlers from Europe.
Native Americans, having lived with bears for centuries, had developed a reverence for the animal’s strength, its stealth, its speed, its resourcefulness. In addition, Indians were so grateful for the hide, meat and fat that some tribes ritualized the hunting and killing of bears. Indians appreciated bears.
Europeans, though, wanted mostly to kill bears, which they saw as a rival for the land’s bounty as well as a danger to life and limb. The Great Hinckley Hunt of 1818, held on Christmas Eve, was a more or less typical attempt to rid a Medina County woodland of wildlings. Some 400 to 600 armed men killed a legion of small animals, 300 white-tailed deer, 17 wolves and 21 bears. Wounded, though not seriously, was a settler who’d taken some buckshot.
The bear saga of 19th-century Ohio can be wrapped up thusly: The people never ceased killing bears until no bears remained to be killed. In the meantime, habitat destruction wrought by forest cutters, miners, developers and land cultivators obliterated any chance that a bear stronghold or two might remain.
The 20th century, though, proved kinder to wildlife for at least two reasons: A conservation movement crystallized, and people abandoned marginal farmland. In some places, particularly in eastern Ohio, the forest made a comeback, and thus did animals that once had lived there.
Unasked and arriving rather late, black bears are tolerated by some, enthusiastically welcomed by others to the ancient neighborhood. Whether they’ll be allowed to stay depends pretty much on the choices we humans make.
Dave Golowenski is a freelance writer based in Sunbury and an Ohio Magazine contributing editor.