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TIFFIN — Wildlife officer Matt Leibengood was understandably skeptical when a report came in through the sheriff’s office here recently, indicating that signs of black bear activity had been observed in rural Seneca County.
“I wasn’t sure what to make of it at first,” said Mr. Leibengood of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Wildlife. “It just sounded very strange and unusual for this part of the state.”
After following up on the account and examining the evidence, Mr. Leibengood was convinced — it was a black bear.
The individuals reporting the bear sign had collected a large amount of scat for identification purposes and taken photos of tracks in the snow.
Still puzzled, Mr. Leibengood, who has been with the state since 1997 and assigned to Seneca County since 2009, got assistance from the staff at the Division of Wildlife’s District II office in Findlay. Collectively, they could arrive at just one conclusion.
“We’ve confirmed it was black bear sign,” he said. “It was like nothing I’ve ever seen before around here.”
■ Status in Ohio: endangered, considered locally extinct from Ohio by 1850
■ By the 1980s, annual sightings occur in Ohio
■ Adult males average 300 pounds, 5 to 6 feet tall
■ Adult females average 175 pounds, 4 to 5 feet tall
■ Adult males can have a home range of 100 square miles
■ Color: black, chocolate or cinnamon brown, blue-black
■ Breeding period: mid-June to mid-July
■ Litter size: one cub first litter, two or three thereafter
■ Litter frequency: usually one litter every other year
■ Young: born sightless, about 8 ounces
Mr. Leibengood said the scat contained vegetation and fine bits of fur, which led him to conclude it was from an omnivore, and the volume was too significant for it to have originated with anything but a large mammal. He said the photo showed a track left by what appeared to be the hind foot of a bear.
“This isn’t the first time people have called and thought they’d seen bear sign,” he said, “but after we looked it over very closely, it was pretty evident to me.”
Mr. Leibengood said he was not aware of any reports of the escape of any bears being kept as pets, so he would assume the sign was left by a wild bear. Black bears are considered endangered and are protected in Ohio, so it is illegal to hunt or harm them, he added.
“Since this bear hasn’t caused problems for people, and it is elusive and avoiding contact with people, that leads us to believe it is wild,” he said. “This is not something we need to be afraid of or go in search of. It’s exciting to think that maybe we’re doing something right with conservation and habitat restoration, and we would see bear activity here, but it is best now to just leave it alone.”
Black bears are native to Ohio and were a major source of food and fur for clothing for American Indians in the region, but the bears were believed to be absent from the state around the middle of the 19th century because of the clearing of forests for the expansion of agriculture by settlers and unregulated hunting.
Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Michigan all have established populations of black bears and hunting seasons for them. In 2011, Pennsylvania hunters harvested nearly 4,400 black bears.
By the mid-1980s, confirmed black bear sightings in Ohio’s extreme northeast and south-central regions were occurring as bear populations in those neighboring states expanded their range.
According to Randi Meyerson, the curator of mammals at the Toledo Zoo, the area a bear will roam varies and is determined by such things as the availability of food and the presence of other dominant males. She added that bears will come out of hibernation during warm stretches of weather and that they prefer forested areas where food sources such as acorns and berries are available.
The state started compiling black bear sighting reports in 1993, and since that time, bears have been confirmed in 50 of Ohio’s 88 counties at some point. Ohio has averaged about 60 confirmed black bear sightings annually over the last three years, according to state wildlife officials. Most of the confirmed sightings occur in the counties that border the forested areas of western Pennsylvania.
Before they breed again, black bear sows will run off young male offspring, and these young males will then search for new territories. According to biologist and author Chuck Fergus, writing for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, black bears are primarily nocturnal and will range over very large areas.
Mr. Fergus also writes that black bears will follow a wide range of patterns relating to when they den, their habitat preferences, and their tolerance of human activity.
Because of the extensive use of agriculture in northwest Ohio, there is no clear corridor for black bears to follow to reach Seneca County, which leaves Mr. Leibengood wondering how a bear could travel across Ohio or down from Michigan without being seen or encountering traffic.
“It definitely had to cover some open territory to get here, and I don’t really have an answer for how that happened,” he said.
Fred Smith of Bascom has been hunting in Seneca County for about 45 years, and he is as perplexed as anyone over the bear sign.
“It just doesn’t seem possible that it could cover that kind of distance without being seen or hit on the road,” he said. “But there’s really no other explanation. If this thing was an escaped pet, it would be going right up to houses looking for food, and it’s clearly not doing that.”
In 2005, a rogue male black bear showed up in Lucas County after apparently wandering into Ohio from Michigan. Sightings were reported in Hillsdale County about nine miles north of the Ohio line, and then in Williams and Fulton counties, before the bear was sighted crossing the railroad tracks just west of Albon Road in western Lucas County.
That bear was identified as a young male of about 100 pounds, and according to the Division of Wildlife, it was the first black bear reported in Lucas County in modern times. Michigan wildlife officials reported at the time that the sighting in Hillsdale County was the southernmost on record in the state.
This most recent report of a confirmed black bear sign in northwest Ohio likely won’t send bear hunters streaking to the area because Ohio does not allow bear hunting. And it likely won’t bring the producers of Animal Planet’s Finding Bigfoot show rushing to the area as they did recently near Salt Fork State Park in southeast Ohio, because the sign found in Seneca County was distinctly from a bear.
Mr. Smith said that although Seneca County is primarily farmland, there are areas where a bear could keep a very low profile.
“It is possible that we have a wild bear here,” he said. “There are a lot of wide fence rows grown up with trees, and farmers have filled those fence rows with rocks that were pulled out of the fields. There are huge piles of rock along some fields, and maybe those could hide a bear.”
Contact Blade Outdoors Editor Matt Markey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6068.