Bears spotted in unusual spot in northeastern Ohio

Painesville, Ohio — While on Feb. 2 a famous Pennsylvania groundhog was predicting six more weeks of winter, on that same day three black bears in northeast Ohio ignored the groundhog’s long-range weather forecast.

The trio of bears – very likely a family unit consisting of a sow and two yearling cubs – took a stroll on Groundhog Day in Lake County a stone’s throw away from Lake Erie. A somewhat blurry cell phone-camera-like photograph was taken of at least two of the animals and was posted on Cleveland’s WKYC-TV3’s web site.

However, this appearance occurred in the dead of winter and in an area of Lake County that many people would say was devoid of bear-denning habitat. The bears were reported in Painesville Township. This location is largely a mix of housing complexes and undeveloped parcels undergoing second growth reversions, with some industrial sites, Lake County’s prodigious landfill, and the also-substantial and highly restricted Perry Nuclear Power Plant.

In terms of open spaces, just to the east is Lake Metroparks’ nearly 600-acre Lake Erie Bluffs Park in Perry Township. But this area does not contain much of what most people would call good bear habitat, says the agency’s biologist John Pogacnik, who has tramped extensively through his agency’s Bluffs holding.

“The Bluffs were logged off some time ago and there’s a lot of second growth and reverting fields. Maybe the bears had found a place at the landfill or at the old factory site nearby. It’s definitely odd,” Pogacnik said.

Pogacnik did add that a bear was seen last summer near Perry Park Road close at hand to the Bluffs – an easy stroll for a human and more so for a bear.

“Just being out in winter does seem weird for a bear, but it is known that if a bear is disturbed when it’s sleeping it will move,” Pogacnik said.

True enough says the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s black bear authority. Such winter-time physiological activity is actually somewhat common. At least for bear families with this apparent make-up, says Mark Ternent, the Commission’s Black Bear Project leader.

Ternent says that almost certainly the trio consists of a sow with cubs almost old enough to go their separate ways, which typically happens just before bear breeding season in May and early June.

“We have bears killed on our highways here in Pennsylvania every month of the year,” Ternent said. “I would guess that in (Ohio’s) case it’s a sow with older cubs, and a unit like that is much easier to be disturbed than were it a sow with newborn cubs. A unit like that will not get up and move if it were to be disturbed.”

In fact, Ternent said, so casual are the denning protocols of sows with nearly grown cubs that such sites are often nothing more than a hollowed out piece of ground with a pile of leaves, twigs, and limbs scooped up.

“I like to compare it to a bird’s nest,” Ternent said. “We’ve walked up to such sites and watched the bears simply rise and wander away. After a couple of days of walking around they’ll lay back down and go back to sleep, though rarely in the same place where they were first disturbed. They’re not starving either.”

Ternent is not overly surprised that the Lake County sighting occurred in an area few people would conclude as being ideal bear denning habitat.

“Bears have expanded their range so much that they are now in places we never would have imagined before,” he said. “It’s why we now have a bear-hunting unit in Northwest Pennsylvania along the border with Ohio.”

And wondering what will become of the three bears befalls on Marino Pellegrini, the state wildlife officer assigned to Lake County.

Pellegrini said he reconnoitered the sighting area the day after the photo shoot but did not find any creatures nor any sign of tracks. And Pellegrini said as well that whenever he’s in that general location he’ll poke around the park, the landfill, and the Painesville and Perry township neighborhood.

“There are still some nooks and crannies where the bears may be sleeping, and I’ll keep in touch with the Lake County Sheriff Department to see if it receives any more reports of bears being sighted,” Pellegrini said.

As for overall bear sightings in Ohio, Jamey Emmert, spokeswoman for the Wildlife Division’s District 3 office in Akron, said that in 2017 Lake County recorded six bear sightings of which three were confirmed.

In neighboring Geauga County the figures were 11 and 8, respectively. Meanwhile, next door in Ashtabula County, the numbers were 29 and 15. The figures for Ashtabula County easily were the most for any of the 30 Ohio counties where black bears were reported in 2017, Emmert said.

Overall in the state last year the number of bear sightings totaled 113 with the number of confirmations standing at 70.