Editor’s Note: This is the third story in a three-part series about black bears that reportedly visited Highland County last summer.
By now most of Ohio and the eastern part of the country have been blanketed by snow from winter storms. It is not surprising that old man winter was a bit delayed for his arrival unlike in the falls of 2014 and 2015. Ohioans know all too well, though, how weather can change at the drop of the hat. January signals the closure of many of the state’s hunting seasons.
This article will bring final closure to a three-part series saw the other two parts printed in the fall. In a way I am glad this last journal was delayed in writing as you will find out why later on in its final content.
Previously, we were in the southeastern part of Ohio. Wildlife Programs Manager Suzie Prange commented that there was a location that was suspicioned to have a breeding population of bears. At that point and time, nothing had been confirmed though. It was during this time frame of investigation for the articles that I made some phone calls across the Ohio River with the West Virginia and Kentucky wildlife departments.
Jeff McCrady has been managing West Virginia’s natural resources for close to 35 years. He is the district wildlife biologist in District 6 that includes many of the Ohio River counties on West Virginia’s side. Wayne, Lucas and Mason are just a few of interest.
“It is believed that all of West Virginia’s Ohio River counties have breeding populations of bear, even though the harvest numbers for those counties are lower than in other counties deeper in the state,” McCrady said.
Wildlife officials are encouraged and optimistic in this lower bear population river corridor that populations will continue to grow, not only from local breeding populations, but those bears that are traveling from the mountain region located in the southeastern part of the state. It has been documented many times of bears swimming across from West Virginia to enter onto the banks of Ohio counties such as Meigs, Lawrence and others that sit on this watershed.
Moving south down the Ohio River, we enter the foothills of Kentucky’s border. Stephen Dobey is the black bear coordinator for the state’s Fish and Wildlife Department. It is estimated that there are upwards of 700 bears living within the Bluegrass State. Most of those bears are located in the Southeastern and South Central portions. But, as Kentucky’s bear population continues to grow, they have moved into the river areas of Lewis, Greenup, and Mason counties. All three are a stone’s throw from the Ohio River counties of Scioto, Adams and Brown.
“Most of our breeding populations are going to be in that Southeastern part of the state which borders Tennessee and West Virginia,” Dobey said. “We have radio-collared a lot of bears in that portion of the state and indications are that is where that slower growing female population of bears are at. Males. however, move and roam throughout even into Western Kentucky and come across the river into Ohio.
In the summer of 2014, one such Kentucky bear made his voyage into the Cincinnati area, making his appearance well known while being covered on both TV and radio news programs. Weeks later, it appeared he went back home, swimming across the river to parts unknown.
With all this bear research and information from Ohio’s neighboring states of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky, pieces of the bear puzzle are starting to come together, creating a picture of the future for Ohio bears. All three states have resident populations adjacent to Ohio. Wildlife officials have confirmed in two of those states, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, that there are breeding populations adjacent to Ohio. Kentucky has confirmed there are now young males just across the river line as well, but falls short of confirming a breeding population.
“At this point and time we don’t believe there are breeding populations of bears in those river counties, but that will change as the population continues to grow and expand,” Dobey said. “Those young male bears that are there have only recently showed up in the last few years so the population density is not as high as elsewhere in the state.”
During the summer of 2015, it is believed there were three different young male bears roaming around in Highland, Adams, and Brown counties. This confirmation was made through witness sightings, pictures confirming the sights, and the body size and hair pattern markings on the bears. It appears that all three eventually moved east, but one continued making his presence known to local sportsmen who had trail cameras set up over a deer feeder toward the end of October. That location was close to most readers of this series, but will be kept a secret.
As the fall of 2015 continued, other puzzle pieces of Ohio’s bears continued to fall into place.
“There is one spot, one location … well, during the early weeks of November when most wildlife officials are busy and preoccupied with the ongoing archery deer season, a small band of dedicated wildlife management personnel were settling in behind the scenes of the fall season for one thing – history,” Prange said.
A culvert trap was loaded and secured, the bolts and switches double-checked for the doorway to close and lock behind. Driving a large trailer containing the culvert trap surely tipped off local residents that something was amiss. The truck and trailer eventually arrived at the property of a supportive landowner for the mission. They set the mechanism on the trap door and waited.
Finally, on Nov. 14, 2015 in Vinton County, the dreams of a few were realized when the culvert trap indicated an Ohio black bear was in the culvert. Safe and sound, the male was testy and concerned as wildlife technicians approached the area. All that were there soaked in the moment, pausing in the realization of what had been accomplished. Under the guidance from Al Lecount, a retired Arizona Game and Fish biologist, the bear was lightly sedated and a radio telemetry collar was placed around the 3-year-old male black bear. Because of the bear’s size, estimated to be 250-300 pounds, it is believed he is a local male that has been making his presence known for some time. And if he is staying around hillsides of Southeastern Ohio, it is suspected that there is a female somewhere as well.
But, for right now we know this: a radio-collared male black bear is giving wildlife biologists a never-before-seen look into Ohio bear biology and tracking. The radio collar gives two signals a day for up to five years. Last contact indicated the male bear was somewhere in an old-growth clear-cut, presumed to be in hibernation.
And how fitting it is. Winter is now upon us in Ohio and the snow and ice has layered together a blanket of cold. But in a few more months, when the spring temperatures continue to rise and the redbuds and dogwoods pop in bloom, a new chapter will begin in the continuing stories and sightings from this series.
Jim Carnes is an ODNR Division of Wildlife officer for Highland County.