TIFFIN — After wildlife officer Matt Leibengood confirmed in early January that a black bear had left prints and its calling card in rural Seneca County, the rogue bruin became a fuzzy topic for discussion at the grain elevators, breakfast stops, and feed stores around the area.
There were rumors that the bear had been hit by a car. Another bear tale had the unexpected visitor getting shot by a farmer after it attacked his cattle.
Neither proved to be true.
Leibengood handled additional inquiries about the bear and received photos of tracks people believed it had created. He also got reports of scat piles that were assumed to be the work of the bear. None of those evidentiary leads panned out.
“People’s curiosity is sparked, so they think everything is a bear,” Leibengood said. “When you find tracks in the mud or the snow that someone thinks were left by a bear, I look for the hind foot track. It is very indicative, and if this is a bear, that track has to be there somewhere.”
But to this point, a month after the confirmed sign, nothing else has shown up — other than a very curious and creative scenario on the bear’s likely route here, and another possible case of bear tracks from late December.
Leibengood said one caller pitched the possibility that the bear climbed on board a westbound train while it was stopped in Pennsylvania, found something to eat in the contents of a freight car, and essentially hitched a ride here, hobo style.
“People want to know where it came from, so I suppose that story is not completely out of the realm of possibilities,” a chuckling Leibengood said.
The theory was supported, in the caller’s mind, by the fact that rail cars from Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey regularly offload trash at a landfill outside Fostoria, relatively close to the location of the confirmed bear sign. However, a representative from the landfill said most of the contents of those rail cars is construction debris, not garbage.
Suzie Prange, a wildlife research biologist located in Athens and the Ohio Division of Wildlife’s bear expert, receives reports on any sightings or confirmed bear sign, and compiles an annual summary of bear activity in the state.
Prange puts the best estimate of Ohio’s black bear population at 50 to 100 animals, and it is her belief that the population is likely expanding, but not at a rapid pace.
She believes the black bear in Seneca County could be a solitary male searching for suitable habitat. “But, I wouldn’t want to guess, and it would just be a guess at this point,” she said. “This case is unusual, both for that part of Ohio and for the time of year. When we see bears in the winter, they are usually residents.”
She said black bears will den up in the winter, but not go into a true hibernation mode. “When it warms up, it is not unusual for them to come out. It is possible this bear just came out for a day and then went back in its den. They’re not going to be moving around a lot this time of year.”
In late December, Lakota Elementary School principal Josh Matz took his 11-year-old daughter Maddie for a winter walk on his family’s property in Sandusky County, just over the line from where the bear sign was later found in neighboring Seneca County. In a five-acre woodlot that sits well off the road, there, pressed into a blanket of fresh snow, was this large paw print.
“It was dead on what a bear print should look like,” Matz said. “It looked pretty convincing.”
There were a lot of rabbit tracks nearby, Matz said, and an area where the snow had been disturbed. He and his daughter left the woods without seeing any additional bear sign.
Ohio had around 150-160 bear sightings in 2010 and 2011, but the data from last year are still being compiled. About 60 percent of those sightings were confirmed by wildlife officials, through evidence such as tracks, scat or photos. In 2011, there were four sightings of sows with cubs in Ohio.
Ohio’s black bears are likely relatively recent immigrants to the Buckeye State. Black bears are native to Ohio, but the population was believed to have been wiped out by the middle of the 19th century, due to habitat loss and unregulated hunting.
Four of Ohio’s neighbors — Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Michigan — all have established populations of black bears. Since most of the Ohio bear sightings over the last two decades have occurred in the eastern half of the state, biologists assume that bears on the move have found suitable range in the hilly and less agricultural areas there.
Pennsylvania has a black bear population estimated at about 18,000 animals, spread throughout most areas of the state, with fewer bears in Greene, Washington, Beaver and western Allegheny counties in the southwest part of the state, and in the southeast corner along the Maryland and New Jersey lines. Pennsylvania hunters harvested more than 3,600 black bears in the 2012 season.
Pennsylvania bear expert Mark Ternent said sightings are possible in all 67 counties, due to the wandering nature and wide range of black bears.
He believes that the out-of-the-ordinary sightings, such as the Seneca County case, almost always involve young males.
“They are trying to find their own range, and trying to leave the area where other dominant males are present,” he said. “There’s a dispersal period where these young males are on the move, and sometimes that takes them into marginal habitat.”
Ternent said the Seneca County bear likely moved about using the cover provided by riparian corridors — those strips of brush and trees lining the shore and flood plain of most rivers and streams.
“We’ve had bears go hundreds of miles, so we see bears in very odd places,” he said. “Now will that bear stay — it is unlikely, because bears need other bears.”
The wildlife biologists and bear experts concurred that the best case scenario for the Seneca County bear is no interaction with humans.
“When it starts to get rewarded with food, then that’s when we run into problems,” Ternent said. “As long as it’s not conditioned to associate people or houses with food, it will likely move on. The best thing to do is nothing.”
Kentucky’s black bear population in concentrated in the southeastern part of the state, along the Virginia and West Virginia state lines. Steven Dobey, black bear biologist for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife, said that since male black bears have such a large range, it is possible they could end up on the north side of the Ohio River.
Dobey has been radio-tracking bears for more than a decade, and has found a male’s home range area is approximately 106 square miles.
“I would not be surprised to see some bears ranging into that southeast corner of Ohio,” he said.
Black bear numbers have been on the increase in West Virginia over the last decade, and bears have been reported in every county, with multiple reports of sows with cubs in the northern and western areas of the state, according to Christopher Ryan, Black Bear Project Leader for the state’s Division of Natural Resources.
Indiana’s historical black bear population is believed to have been eliminated after the territory was settled, but there have been recent reports of bears showing up infrequently on trail cameras, and confirmed sightings by Michigan wildlife officials near the Indiana-Michigan line.
Michigan is home to an estimated 7,000 to 8,000 adult and yearling bears, with most of that population located in the Upper Peninsula and the northern Lower Peninsula, according to Adam Bump, the bear and furbearer specialist with the Michigan DNR.
Bump said there is likely a small population in the southern portion of the state and there have been confirmed bear sightings in southeast Michigan in the last five years.
Because all the evidence points toward the Seneca County black bear being a wild bear that has avoided human contact, Leibengood won’t be surprised if there are no further cases of confirmed sign, or sightings.
“It is possible that this bear had moved on before we were even aware of it,” he said.
Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6068.