No, it's not your imagination. You are hearing more and more reports of black bears prowling Ohio's eastern woodlands and in a few rare cases some suburban neighborhoods! Last year, a record 128 black bear sightings in 29 Ohio counties were reported to the states wildlife division, which keeps tabs on resident and visiting bruins.
Having roused themselves from winter hibernation, black bears are once again on the move this spring, and will undoubtedly provide a few lucky Ohioans the rare opportunity of glimpsing these fascinating animals in the wild.
Black bears are native to Ohio, and in the days prior to settlement there were thousands of these docile creatures roaming the region's woodlands. Early Native Americans placed a high value on black bears, which is evident by artifacts and relics unearthed across the state.
But as pioneer Ohioans cleared bear habitat for farms and towns, the black bear began disappearing from the landscape, and by 1850 none could be found in the state.
In the deep woods of West Virginia and western Pennsylvania, black bears (scientifically known as Ursus americanus) continued to thrive. Beginning in the 1980s, these "neighbor" bears began expanding their range westward into the Buckeye State.
Fifty to 75 black bears, including a number of breeding "sows," are now living in eastern and southeastern Ohio year round, according to Dave Swanson, wildlife biologist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) Division of Wildlife.
Young males probably account for most of Ohio's bear sightings, said Swanson. Black bears are highly mobile and its not unusual for these one- to two-year-old male "weanlings" newly shunned by their mothers to travel up to 100-200 miles in search of a quiet woods to call home. Female bears, on the other hand, tend to stick close to their birthplace.
Black bears become mature for breeding at four to five years of age. Females breed every other year and give birth to their cubs in January or February during hibernation. Cubs weigh between 7 to 12 ounces at birth and open their eyes within the first 25 to 30 days.
The average adult black bear is about three feet at the shoulders, weighs 150 to 300 pounds and can live to the ripe old age of 20. Black bears sport a dense, glossy coat of black fur, walk in a shuffling, flat-footed manner and sport five toes at the end of each foot. They have an excellent senses of smell, great hearing and vision similar to humans. Occasionally theyll growl woof, and if injured are known to sob and bawl.
Seeing a bear in the wild can inspire both awe and fear, although Swanson is quick to emphasize that burgeoning numbers of black bears are nothing to fear. He added that people and bears can live together in harmony, as long as the humans observe a few basic rules and keep their distance.
"First and foremost, never feed a bear or entice one with snacks," Swanson said. "Feeding a bear causes it to lose its fear of humans and become a pest."
Garbage cans, bird feeders and pet food dishes are "fast food stands" for bears. Although their favorite meals are berries and grubs, bears will eat anything that's handy!
Bears are naturally shy creatures and do their best to avoid humans, said Swanson. In the wild, they only become feisty if they have no way to avoid an encounter. He stressed that any person confronting a bear, whether its a cub or adult, should back away slowly and give the animal plenty of room to escape.
Be aware, too, that black bears are an endangered species in Ohio and hunting them is prohibited.
If you are fortunate enough to glimpse one of Ohios newest residents, report your sighting to ODNR at 1-800-WILDLIFE. Your information will help biologists better understand these magnificent creatures.