You’ve probably never seen a black bear in person, and if you have, it probably wasn’t in Ohio. However, this doesn’t mean that they aren’t present in the state and play an important role in forest ecosystems here. In the past, black bears were much more abundant and roamed throughout Ohio. Due to unregulated hunting and deforestation, populations plummeted. The remaining bears that survived these disturbances were either shot or trapped by settlers to protect livestock and crops3.
Now that Ohio’s woodlands have regrown and more action is being taken to preserve natural habitats, the black bear population is making a comeback. Young bears are returning from nearby states to settle in Ohio’s forests and establish new territories1. While the population is still very small, experts say it continues to grow. The statewide black bear population is estimated to be around 50-100 individual bears1. This may not seem like many, but considering they were completely wiped out, this is big news.
Most recent sightings of black bears are coming out of the wooded eastern half of Ohio. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) began tracking sightings in 1993, and reports have been increasing since then. Most commonly, people have been spotting bears any time between late May and early July, but they can be seen year-round. Last year, 191 sightings were reported across 45 Ohio counties, with 73 of those being confirmed with photos and tracks1. Obviously not every sighting is of a different bear and many cannot be confirmed due to lack of hard evidence. Because black bears have a very large home range and travel often, it is very difficult for scientists to precisely monitor the population. ODNR relies primarily on public reports to gain an estimate of the number of individual bears currently present in Ohio1.
Increases in the black bear population will have certain ecological impacts in the future. Bears are omnivorous and eat anything from fruit to grasses to meat. Most commonly, they consume forbs, berries, carrion, nuts, and insects1. The presence of the black bear allows for increased dispersal of seeds and allows for more trophic stability in the food chain. With the addition of a top predator, lower trophic levels can be kept in check and overabundant populations are less likely to be produced. Overall, the black bear adds diversity and stability to Ohio’s forests and should be welcomed instead of feared.
ODNR has recently advised people in the state to be on the lookout for black bears as their active season approaches2. If you see a bear, the first thing to do is remain calm to avoid provoking the animal. Usually the bear will flee upon noticing human presence. Allow an amble amount of space between you and the bear and allow it an easy escape route if it is cornered. If the black bear approaches, raise your hands above your head to appear larger and more intimidating. You can also clap your hands and make loud noises to scare the bear off2.
As you can see, the return of the black bear to Ohio’s woods is a major occurrence and something that should not be taken lightly. The more the population grows, the more likely you are to encounter one in the wild. However, their presence is also great for the health of forest ecosystems and helping to keep populations in check. On both sides of the coin, black bears are poised to make a big impact in Ohio’s forests for years to come.
1Black Bears in Ohio: Guidelines to Enjoying Ohio’s Expanding Black Bear Population. (n.d.). Retrieved June 14, 2019, from http://wildlife.ohiodnr.gov/species-and-habitats/nuisance-wildlife/black-bears-in-ohio
2ODNR: Black bear sightings expected to increase in Ohio this summer. (2019, May 14). Retrieved June 14, 2019, from https://www.wlwt.com/article/odnr-black-bear-sightings-expected-to-increase-in-ohio-this-summer/27462846
3Fioto, D. (n.d.). Ohio Black Bears. Retrieved June 14, 2019, from https://www.hockinghills.com/featstory/bears.html