Black bears (Ursus americanus) inhabited all of Ohio prior to European settlement. They were second only to white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) in importance to Native Americans. Black bears provided meat for food, fur for clothing, bones for tools, and fat for cooking, hide tanning, and waterproofing. As European settlement proceeded and Ohio’s human population increased, black bear habitat was destroyed by clearing of forests for agricultural, residential, and industrial purposes. Black bears were shot or trapped to protect livestock, crops, and settlers from real or perceived danger. Black bears were considered extirpated (extinct) in Ohio by 1850. They are currently on Ohio’s Endangered Species List.
Beginning in the 1980s, after over a 100-year absence, sightings of black bears in eastern Ohio increased in frequency as black bear populations in Pennsylvania and West Virginia increased and expanded westward. Although black bears began to recolonize Ohio 40 years ago, they remain on the Endangered Species List today and their recovery has been painfully slow. There are several reasons for their slow recovery. First, both West Virginia and Pennsylvania have bear hunting seasons, which keep the number of bears in the counties bordering Ohio low. Consequently, movement into Ohio from neighboring states is low. Additionally, most of Ohio’s black bear sightings occur in northeastern Ohio, where human density is high and bear habitat is scarce compared to the large wooded area of Ohio’s Appalachian Plateau in eastern and southeastern Ohio. So, why do more bears enter Ohio in an area with little habitat and many humans? The answer is the ease of entry. The Ohio River forms somewhat of a barrier to movement into eastern and southeastern Ohio compared to the lack a barrier in northeastern Ohio. This does not mean that the river is an impassable barrier to black bears–far from it–black bears can easily cross the river. However, movement is certainly reduced in comparison with areas in northeastern Ohio with no barrier.
Nonetheless, the largest issue is the length of time it takes bears to recover from population declines for biological reasons. Studies have shown that it can take over a decade for bears to recover from even brief overharvest. It follows that it will take much longer for them to reoccupy an area after complete extirpation. The reasons again are several. First, the black bear is a long-lived species. It takes females 4 years to reach reproductive maturity. If they are not in prime health, they might not reproduce for the first time until they are 8-years-old. When they reproduce, they have 2–3 cubs, usually only 2. These young will stay with their mother for 2 years. Males leave their mother’s home range during their second summer, typically during June and July, which is also the prime breeding season. Males will travel from tens to hundreds of miles away to establish a new territory. Their instinctual desire to put distance between their new territory and their mother’s home range is an adaptation that prevents inbreeding, because their sisters do not disperse very far, tending to settle in a home range next to their mother. This slow geographic movement of female distribution is one of the main reasons for the slow recovery of recovering black bear populations.
Most of Ohio’s bear sightings occur in June and July, which, as mentioned above, represents both the prime dispersal period of young males and the prime breeding season. Numerous males move through Ohio. However, even if these young males find the perfect bear habitat in southeastern Ohio, they will not stay if there are no available females. For many years, there was controversy regarding whether there was a reproducing population in Ohio. However, genetic evidence from a road-killed adult revealed that it was a female. Additionally, there have been multiple sightings of cubs or young adults with their mothers. Some of these sightings have been verified by photographs. Thus, Ohio most certainly has a small reproducing population of black bears. If properly managed and protected, we should begin to see an increasing growth rate, and ultimately, the recovery of black bears in Ohio.