Grin and bear it: Ohio motorist has rare encounter with black bear

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Grin and bear it: Ohio motorist has rare encounter with black bear

A driver motoring along a stretch of State Route 32 in northeastern Adams County around 11 p.m. on Christmas night had a very close encounter with an Ohio native that has been a rarity here for more than 150 years. The motorist struck and killed a large male black bear as it crossed the roadway.

Once fairly common throughout the Buckeye State, black bears fell victims to unregulated hunting and significant habitat loss, and by the start of the Civil War they were considered extirpated from Ohio. They are still classified as an endangered species in Ohio, but wildlife biologists believe the state is home to 50-100 black bears that have migrated here from neighboring Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Kentucky.

“We don’t know for sure just where he came from, but for some of us folks, it’s exciting to know black bears are coming back in Ohio, but sad to see that we lost one here,” said Bill Wickerham, who was on site after the bear was hit. Wickerham added that there have been a couple of recent confirmed bear sightings on his Adams County farm.

“This bear must have been around the area for some time, since there have been different trail camera photos of a black bear. We can’t be sure it is the same one, but a lot of people had taken ownership of that bear,” Wickerham said. “Now there are those folks who had no idea there were black bears in Ohio, and some who don’t like the idea and say ‘good riddance,’ but I’m one of those who are glad to see them making a comeback.”

The motorist was not hurt, and the male bruin that was killed in the collision weighed 261 pounds and is believed to be a young male. An official with the Adams County Travel & Visitors Bureau said that over the past two years, black bears have been sighted numerous times in the remote, forested, mountainous section of the county where the Christmas incident took place.

Katie Dennison, a wildlife biologist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said most of the bears found in the state are likely rogue males that have wandered into Ohio while roaming around looking for mates.

“We’re not exactly sure what is the cause of the dispersal process, but these younger bears could be chased off by older males, or just have the urge to leave the area where they were born,” she said. “We do know that the majority of the black bears we see in Ohio are younger males, and that the males disperse much greater distances than the females. The females might choose to stay close to the mother’s range.”

Ohio had four road-killed black bears in 2018 and all were males, and of the 27 documented road-killed black bears in the state since record keeping began in 1993, all but one have been males.

“Right now, we are aware of only one reproducing female in the state, and if we don’t have reproducing females, we won’t have that many bears,” Dennison said. “The number of sightings has increased since we started tracking those, but the actual resident numbers are likely very small.”

Suzie Prange, a research biologist who formerly worked in southeastern Ohio’s Athens County, said the male black bears seen in Ohio are very likely a highly migratory lot.

“They will settle in a territory in Ohio, but only if they find an area with a female,” Prange said. “Because females tend to settle next to their mother’s territory, black bear range expands very slowly. Many of the young males we see each year in Ohio won’t find females and won’t stay.”

The bear killed in Adams County very likely could have crossed the Ohio River from nearby Kentucky. “They are good swimmers, and crossing the Ohio River would not be too big of a challenge,” Dennison said. “I’d also note that, given the location, if this was a dispersing individual from out of state, it may have been coming from either West Virginia or Kentucky.”

Dennison added that the documented increase in the number of black bear sightings in Ohio could be due to the proliferation of trail cameras and security cameras, and individuals carrying cell phones.

“The large majority of black bear sightings that we are able to verify are either from trail cams or security footage, or by getting photos or video with a phone,” she said.

The Adams County bear is headed to a taxidermy shop for a full-body mount, which will then be displayed in the courthouse in West Unity, next to a massive 27-point white-tailed buck that was found dead and has been showcased there since 1976.

“We are making the best of the situation,” said Wickerham. “It was a shame to lose this bear in that collision, but this way many people will get to see something very rare – an Ohio black bear.”

The status of the black bear is quite different in Michigan, where the Upper Peninsula is believed to be home to nearly 11,000 of the bruins, which range in size up to 400 pounds and 6 feet in length. There are an estimated additional 3,000 black bears in the northern stretch of the Lower Peninsula. Michigan holds a very limited permit lottery for hunting black bears each year, and about 1,700 black bears were harvested in 2017.

“Our black bear population is very healthy, and it is a growing population, as well,” said Ashley Autenrieth, a wildlife biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, working out of the Gaylord Operations Service Center.

She said Michigan’s black bears living in the Upper Peninsula have very few encounters with humans or vehicles, since there are so few people living in the more than 16,000 square miles above the Mackinac Bridge.

“It is such a much more remote area, with less than 3 percent of the human population of the state of Michigan living in the U.P., so these bears have a much wider range up there,” Autenrieth said. She added that black bears do very well in forested areas where they find mast-producing species, such as oak, apple and beech trees.

Most Michigan and Ohio black bears should be found in dens at this point in the winter, but they are not true hibernators. They enter a state of torpor, where their body temperature decreases and their metabolism and heart rate slow down. The bear does not eat or drink during this time, but relies on the reserves of fat stored in its body.

Originally posted by MATT MARKEY, The Blade Outdoors Editor on JAN 13, 2019.
Photo: Adams County Travel and Visitors Bureau