GERMANTOWN, Ohio — Sandwiched between the urban sprawls of Dayton and Cincinnati are 7,000 protected, largely wooded acres known as the Twin Valley, spliced by the creek of the same name. The rugged land is a haven for humans to explore and enjoy.
But what one park visitor encountered a few years ago was startling. He simply wasn’t expecting to come face to face with a black bear, according to local news reports.
It turns out Twin Creek is more than a haven for humans: Bears have returned to Ohio.
Black bears were once common in the state, foraging in forests and lumbering through river bottomlands. But by 1850 the state had largely been eradicated of North America’s largest mammal as hunters became more prevalent and farmers settled the land, reducing bear habitat.
By the mid-1980s things began to change. An occasional black bear would amble in from neighboring Pennsylvania, which boasts a population of 40,000 black bears. As early as the 1990, an Amish teenage girl in Adams County, Ohio reported seeing a “little honey bear” in the woods while she was out picking berries, according to news reports. It’s possible among the remote rocky ridges and deep hollows of this rural slice of near-Appalachian Ohio that the bears never left.
But, either way, they are making a comeback. Now officials believe scores of bears could be living in the state, running up against a human population that is long used to living without them.
In the Twin Creek watershed, where the visitor was surprised, there is actually evidence that a bear — or possibly two — took up permanent residence in the valley for a while.
Dave Nolin is the director of conservation at Five Rivers MetroParks, which oversees most of the protected lands in the Twin Valley.
“The bear sightings were exciting for us at Five Rivers MetroParks. There were a dozen or so solid reports over a two-to-three-year period. The bear was sighted at Germantown and Twin Creek MetroParks, and I found some scat along Twin Creek between the two parks. I don't know if this was one animal, or more than one,” Nolin said, adding that the bear was doing exactly what the park’s mission is: connecting parcels of land to create corridors for wildlife to live.
“It was rewarding because the bear seemed to be using the network of protected lands that had been pieced together for conservation purposes,” Nolin said.
The work of stitching together protected patches of land into “forested byways” has acted as a magnet for a panoply of wildlife.
“The Twin Valley lands have many species not found in other Metroparks. When I was a kid we did not have wildlife like deer, beaver, otter, turkey, geese, bobcat, Coopers hawk, and pileated woodpecker. Their return to our fragmented and changed version of nature is a testament to the adaptability of nature, and the importance of local conservation I think,” Nolin says, adding that he reckons the bears were attracted to the area because of the hospitable environment.
But the Twin Valley isn’t the only area in the Buckeye State that is hospitable to bears. Vast tracts of land in south-central and southeast Ohio are prime potential bear locales. In fact, Ohio has enough of a bear population that the state launched its first (and what may well be, at the moment, the smallest bear radio collar program in the U.S.) that will track black bear.
A black bear was sighted in rural Vinton County last fall by USDA workers trying to eradicate a colony of feral hogs. Ohio wildlife officials were able to collar the bear and send it on its way; the collar should yield a trove of information over the months ahead about the state of Buckeye bear, as some call it. Current Ohio Department of Natural Resources put the number of resident bears in Ohio at 50 to 75, but there is still some uncertainty about the numbers.
In Adams County, where the Amish girl reported the “honey bear” years ago, reports of bears are now commonplace. Ohio Division of Wildlife officer Scott Cartwright reports three sightings of bear last year and thinks the state’s habitat is ripe for more.
“It will be a learning curve for the residents and present a whole new set of challenges … one of the main problems people have with black bear is leaving trash out. People are used to leaving their trash cans outside and the bears will be interested in those and that will be a change people have to deal with,” Cartwright said.
Perhaps even more challenging than rural garbage cans are the bears that interlope into the city. A young male black bear lumbered into Cincinnati in the summer of 2014, causing quite a stir.
“The challenges we face when they are in the city is everyone wants to see it and that frightens the bear,” Cartwright said.
The bear, which ambled through some of Cincinnati’s affluent eastern suburbs, did cause fears that Jimmy Carnes, an ODNR wildlife officer in neighboring Highland County, had to help quell.
“Bears are a new thing in Ohio, we are still learning. Typically people don’t understand the habits of the black bear, they are typically not aggressive. And the bear’s return is a chance to educate about the positive. When they see a black bear, embrace the moment, get photographs and steer clear. You have to respect them and enjoy them, but they are still a wild animals,” Carnes said. Carnes was on the duty the day the bear arrived in Cincinnati but by the time he arrived the bear had moved on.
But not everyone is keen to see bears return to the state.
Julie Zickefoose is an author, NPR commentator, and contributing editor to Bird Watcher’s Digest who lives on an 80 acre spread in prime bear country in southeastern Ohio. She is on alert for bears.
“I have never seen a bear on my property. But every couple of falls or so people in town (Marietta) see a young male loping through a cemetery, or raiding apples off a tree. It rarely ends well. My opinion on bear suitability of wooded Appalachian Ohio? High. Bobcats have absolutely exploded here. If bobcats can do that, bears can't be far behind. And you know what? It's the one animal I really don't want around! Much as I love all wildlife, coons are bad enough. Imagine trying to protect bird feeders from a bear. Which is just a huge coon. And coons are tiny bears."
But regardless of how people feel about the bear’s return, biologists believe that their numbers will only grow in the coming years.