That Time Ohio's Bear Population Became Too Much To Bear

Aug 31, 2018

We Ohioans live among bears.

So, too, do Kentuckians, but it's not such a big deal on their side of the river because they've gotten used to it.

Ohioans, though, tend to freak out at the thought of great Ursus Americanus lumbering around the hills and hollows of southeast Ohio, and, worse yet, right here where we live – among the tree-shaded suburban roads where there are nuts aplenty – some of which even grow on trees.

Well, relax.

First of all, there aren't many of them in Ohio – a total population of black bears is estimated to be between 50 and 100.

And they'd have to be really, really hungry to eat you.

The black bears in Ohio feed on berries, bark, yummy insect larvae and, when they are in the mood for fine dining, whatever fish they can catch from a stream. They might like a glass of sauvignon blanc with their fish, but it is rarely available.

The bear population in Ohio tends to go up and down, depending on how many swim across the Ohio River from Kentucky in the spring to search for mates. (They are such romantics, those ursine devils.)

The spring of 2007 was one of those times when the black bear population exploded in Ohio, with sightings as far north as Warren County.

The epicenter of black bear activity was in Adams County, about 70 miles east of downtown Cincinnati, a place I knew very well. It is made up of little villages along the banks of the Ohio River that find themselves battling flood water nearly every spring. There, deep, dark wooded forests with steep hills border on being mountains, and in the farmland, you can drive for miles on the backroads and never see a power line because nearly all the inhabitants are Amish folk.

It is at once a beautiful place and a bleak place, a place where wealthy city folk from Cincinnati and elsewhere are buying up lands to build rural McMansions as their second homes, and where poverty and joblessness settled in countless decades ago and have never really loosened their grip.

When I started seeing the reports in weekly newspapers from Adams and neighboring Brown County of dozens of bear sightings, I became intrigued.

As a long-time camper who has done his share of fly fishing in mountain streams, I've had some up-close-and-personal bear encounters, mostly in the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania.

One of the closest came about 15 years ago when I was trout fishing in a stream that gurgled through the woods in Fulton County, Pa., surrounded on both sides by steep banks.

I was standing on a sand bar that jutted out into the stream. From there, I could see dozens of trout making their way upstream. At one point, I looked down at my feet and saw some very distinctive marks in the sand.

Those are bear tracks!

I heard a rustling noise on the opposite bank. I looked up, and about 20 yards away, I saw a big old mama bear waddling up the hill. She stopped briefly, turned and gave me a disinterested look, and, with a snort in my direction, kept moving up the hill.

That bear had been fishing in the same spot where I was! And that bear had a full belly.

This city boy was thinking about that day when I called Adams County's undisputed expert in wildlife, Tom Cross, whose day job was heading up the Adams County Travel and Visitors Bureau.

Tom also wrote an outdoors column that ran in a number of area small town weekly newspapers.

Folks in Adams County knew there was nothing about the critters that inhabited the hills and hollers of the county -- from Manchester in the south to Peebles in the north -- that Tom Cross did not know.

By the spring of 2007, about 30 county residents had filed credible sightings of black bears with the Ohio Division of Wildlife or the county sheriff's department. And Tom Cross knew every person who had reported them.

My editors at the Enquirer were eager to get everything we could on the black bears wandering around southern Ohio; it was the kind of story that, in the news business, we call a "talker" – a story people talked about at work while having a cup of coffee or at the local lunch counter.

I knew Tom Cross from a previous story I had done in Adams County about the Amish community. He always wanted me to come down to Adams County and go fishing with him in Ohio Brush Creek.

Unfortunately, we could never make that happen. But I was able to spend a couple of days with Tom traveling around Adams County for two purposes: First, in hope of catching a glimpse of one of the black bears ourselves; and secondly, talking to a lot of the folks who had filed entirely credible reports on bear sightings.

As we drove up and down the two-lane highways and the backwoods country lanes of Adams County, Tom told me a great deal about the history of black bears in Ohio.

Two hundred years ago, he said, the pioneers and native Americans in Ohio shared the heavily forested land with the bear, but with the development of farms, cities and industries, the bears retreated to less developed areas – Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky.

They, in fact, became an endangered species in Ohio. Although, as Cross said, '"they seem to be making a comeback."

The best advice should you encounter a black bear, Cross said, is remain calm. Black bears are generally not aggressive and will more often than not flee the area if they are aware of your presence.

The Ohio Division of Wildlife has an acronym for their rules on what to do when faced with a black bear. It's called AWARE:

  • Act calm and do not run.
  • Warn the bear that you are near; talk in a firm, calm voice.
  • Allow space between you and the bear. Step aside and back slowly away. Do not make the bear feel trapped or threatened.
  • Raise your hands above your head to appear larger if the bear approaches. Clap your hands or shout to scare the bear away.
  • Exit the area – which, to most folks, seems to be the most practical advice of all.

Tom and I were ready to do any or all of these things on our many treks through the woods over the two days I spent in Adams County.

We talked to about a dozen people who had reported seeing bears. They had no evidence, but Tom believed them because their stories made sense.

"Some of those people appear to be seeing the same bear,'' Cross said.

The very first person to produce irrefutable evidence of a bear encounter – photographs – was Jim Williamson, a deer hunter from West Milton in Miami County, north of Dayton.

For many years, Jim had been hunting deer and other wildlife on about 300 acres of backwoods land owned by his buddy Kenny Moles, just off State Route 348 near the hamlet of Cedar Mills.

Moles runs a sawmill on the property for his packaged firewood business about a mile off the road. About another mile further into the dark woods, there's a small clearing where Williamson has his deer stand in a stout tree about 25-feet off the ground.

Williamson and his son Travis were driving back to the clearing in August of that year when he spotted a black bear near the automatic corn feeder – a device with a timer, that would periodically spread corn as an attraction for the deer.

As soon as the bear spotted the truck coming, it turned tail and started heading up a nearby ridge, where Williamson had a small hunting cabin.

He and his son checked the automatic camera they fastened to a tree trunk near the corn feeder. Moles put the chip on his computer and, sure enough, there was a black bear, digging into the corn on the ground. At long last, someone in Adams County had actual photographic proof of a black bear in the county.

They re-strapped the camera to the tree and left it there another eight days. The camera caught the bear's image no less than 10 times.

Cross and Williamson both said it was clearly the same bear.

"He'd time his visits to when that corn feeder went off,'' Williamson said. "That bear was no dummy. That bear could tell time. He knew what he was doing."

Fleeting glimpses of the bear were seen several more times on or around the Moles' property in August and September.

One of the most memorable people I talked to was Sherry Leis, who had the distinction of being the first person in Adams County to report a black bear sighting during the great bear migration of 2007.

She was sitting on the porch of her trailer home on Bat Roost Road one night when she saw a good-sized male sidling up a ditch outside her home.

Tom Cross believes that Sherry Leis, who lives about three miles as the crow flies from the Moles' property, probably saw a different bear than the one that was raiding Williamson's deer trap. Her mobile trailer is very isolated, deep in the woods, not far from the Ohio River.

She told me that she was sitting on the front porch, talking to a friend on her cordless phone, when Buford, her basset hound, began "barking his fool head off.''

She looked out toward the dark road and the ditch. The only light around was a security light on a pole next to her trailer home.

"At first, I thought it was a cow,'' she said. "There's a farm across the road. But then I realized that it was a bear. I started yelling into the phone that there was a bear just a few feet away. The bear stood up; sniffed the air; and then turned and walked away. Then he disappeared."

She took a lot of grief from her neighbors, who thought she had gone over the deep end and started showering her with stuffed teddy bears.

"That's OK, I know what I saw and I saw a bear,'' she said. "It was pretty scary.

"But part of me wishes that bear would come back."

So do I, Sherry, so do I.

Read more "Tales from the Trail here."