Statistics say bear numbers up in Ohio

By Mark Tuscano Contributing Writer

Columbus — The black bear appears to have returned to Ohio to
stay, joining a growing list of species such as the bald eagle,
osprey, otter, sandhill crane, and snowshoe hare that are finding
the state more hospitable now than it has been for a century.

Black bears are very large, at the top of the list as far as the
state’s wild species go, and as such have a big appetite. They are
also considered by experts to be very intelligent, curious, and
when in the mood, that is when not hibernating, very hungry.

From 1993 to 2002, bear sighting reports to the DNR Division of
Wildlife increased from 28 to 165. The numbers have dropped off
somewhat since to 105 sightings in 2005.

However, 2006 could turn out to be a banner year for bears,
wildlife officials say. There have already been 90 sightings in
Ohio in less than seven months.

Confirmed bears have been concentrated in counties near or
adjoining Pennsylvania and West Virginia, where it is presumed the
bears are most often just visitors to Ohio. But, there also have
been reports of sows with cubs, suggesting they are residents
now.

One of the attributes the black bear shares with humans, besides
appetite, seems to be its curiosity. There have been reports this
year of individuals entering back yards to nibble on bird feeders
or raid bee hives and garbage cans. On June 21, Ashtabula fisherman
Robert Loveland reported that a wild black bear joined him and his
daughter on an outing at the Ashtabula River (Ohio Outdoor News,
July 7). Loveland speculated that the bear may have been a mother
trying to expel him from the area.

Unless they are ill or starving, black bears typically avoid
people, said Jeremy Carpenter, assistant curator for North American
Animals at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.

Because of their ability to exploit a variety of environments
and their opportunistic knack, black bears can range throughout the
eastern and western forested and mountainous states and into
similar environments throughout Canada and part of Mexico,
Carpenter said.

The exceptions to their range include America’s breadbasket
states of the Great Plains, and desert regions, Carpenter said.
Usually black or blue-black, they may also be brown, cinnamon,
almost white or black with a white blaze.

The Columbus Zoo houses just one black bear, a 620-pounder.

Black bears are regularly kept in captivity for a variety of
reasons and the behavior they exhibit is not typical of their wild
brethren, Carpenter said. In one incident this year a captive black
bear fled from its cage and entered an Ashtabula County home
severely mauling a woman (Ohio Outdoor News, June 9). Nothing of
that nature has ever been reported in Ohio involving a wild black
bear, the DNR Division of Wildlife said at the time.

“Captive black bears can develop mental problems,” Carpenter
said. “When confined, they may exhibit unnatural pacing behavior or
chomp their teeth because of the unnatural surroundings.”

To avoid that, the Columbus Zoo provides something different
every day to help its bear cope with captivity. Some days, he may
get a big ball to play with and a couple times a week he will get a
block of ice with fruit frozen inside. Zookeepers also deliver
fresh branches for the bear and other animals to chew and play
with, Carpenter said.

“People on their own don’t usually have the resources to do
those things,” Carpenter said of the zoo’s program. “It’s always
best to leave wild animals in the wild and not try to confine
them.”

Although most encounters between black bears and humans result
in the bear fleeing, whenever a wild black bear does become
aggressive it almost always ends in a tragedy for the humans
involved, the bear, or both.

A six-year-old Clyde, Ohio, child was killed by a wild black
bear in the Cherokee National Forest of Tennessee in April (Ohio
Outdoor News, April 28). One bear was shot and killed after the
attack and another was captured and held for testing. The second
bear was eventually confirmed as the killer and destroyed by
authorities.

On July 19, 14-year-old Boy Scout Colton Stewart of Utah was
bitten on the arm while he was asleep in his tent. A black bear had
been spotted near the scout camp earlier in the evening and
evidently returned to look for a free meal.

“It wasn’t biting viciously,” said the regional wildlife officer
that responded to the report. “They put their mouths on things to
see what they taste like.”

The bear was subsequently killed by the officer since it had
lost its fear of humans. But statistically, according to the
American Bear Association, a person is 180 times more likely to be
killed by a bee than by a black bear.

“Fortunately there have not been instances of aggressive
behavior reported in Ohio,” said Damon Greer, assistant wildlife
management supervisor in Akron for the Division of Wildlife.

“Some people misunderstand a bear’s behavior and think it’s
acting aggressively,” he said. “Like for instance when they
occasionally stand, it’s to get a better view or smell. People take
that as aggressive, but it’s probably a submissive behavior.”

Greer said the greatest number of confirmed black bears in Ohio
is in the northeast part of the state, but the statistics can be
misleading. While it’s easier for a bear to enter the state in the
northeast where there isn’t a barrier such as the Ohio River to the
south, there are also more people in the northeast, so sightings
are more frequent.

Bears can, and do, cross the Ohio River from West Virginia, but
there is vastly more unpopulated land there where they may live and
never be spotted, Greer said.

While black bears are generally considered no threat to humans,
a large territorial male can be a deadly threat to smaller males
during breeding season from June through mid-July, he said.

The latest statistics and projections, Greer said, suggest 2006
can be another very strong year for sightings. Last year’s total
number of sightings was 105 with 58 individual black bears
confirmed statewide. In less than seven months so far this year, 46
black bears have been positively identified out of 90 reported
sightings, he said.

“Our numbers are very high,” Greer said. “These are primarily
young transient male bears of non-breeding status leaving
northwestern Pennsylvania. They would be 2 or maybe 3 years
old.”

Greer estimated there may be as many as 19,000 black bears in
Pennsylvania, where there is a regulated hunting season for them
annually. Black bears are on the endangered species list in Ohio
and as such are protected.

There have been only a few sightings of adult female bears here,
Greer said. Female black bears with cubs have a very small range.
So, for them to establish homes they have very specific
requirements, including a plentiful food supply and a secluded
location where they can safely raise their young, Greer said.

Female breeding bears must also come from a direct line of
adjoining breeding female bear territories, he said.

“It may be many years down the road before we see a good solid
breeding population here, but we’re seeing the beginnings of that
right now,” Greer said.

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