Ohio Life

My Ohio: Bear Tracks

An encounter with a jogger leads to an eagle sighting that results in a lesson about wildlife.

Like many Ohioans, I’ve watched with interest as wildlife — especially large wildlife — have returned to the state. In the Dayton area where I live, this has taken many forms, from the introduction of peregrine falcons that nest on a downtown skyscraper to the coyotes and deer that wander through our cul-de-sac.

There are beaver and herons along the Great Miami River, foxes in the fields near my suburban home and hawks everywhere. Oh, and all those Canada geese — a species reintroduction that worked a little too well.

Last winter, I was driving along the river just south of downtown when I had to stop for a jogger who was standing right in the middle of the street. He was pointing into the tree overhead.

I saw it: A bald eagle. In downtown Dayton.

I still remember reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring as a teenager, and being distraught about the plight of bald eagles. I’m not kidding when I say I choked up when I saw the bird. He was wonderful — white head gleaming, calmly scanning the river for his next fishy snack.

I had to learn more about him. I called a friend, a former spokesperson for the Five Rivers MetroParks, and excitedly told her what I’d seen. “Yeah, the eagles are cool,” she said, “but they’re old news around here. We’ve got a bear down in Germantown MetroPark.”

No way. A bear?

Wildlife officials figure there are at least 50 black bears roving Ohio, mostly in the southeastern and western parts of the state, where they come over from the hills of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky. When you’re a cute cub, mom bear takes great care of you. If you’re a cute cub who grows up to be a young male, the older dominant male kicks you out and you wander far and wide looking for a mate. One of these youngsters had apparently meandered into the parks near Dayton.
As it happened, there was something fun I could do with this. Earlier this year, I was invited to join “Community Voices,” a project sponsored by the public radio station in Yellow Springs, WYSO-FM.
Listeners sign up for an intensive crash course in how to report and edit an NPR-style story. As a print journalist, I wanted to learn a different storytelling style. When I pitched the story about the bear, the group loved it.

So on a drizzly April morning, I found myself hiking through woods southwest of Dayton with Mike Enright, the conservation biologist who monitors and manages all the wildlife in the 16,000-acre MetroParks system. I was armed with a WYSO microphone, recorder and headset, and interviewed Mike about the bear as we sploshed through creeks and puddles looking for signs of the animal.

Turns out he’s a small (for a bear) teenager weighing about 200 pounds. He’s been spotted only occasionally over the last two years by hikers in the 6,000 contiguous acres of Germantown and Twin Creek MetroParks. Mike loved talking about him. When I edited the piece, I realized Mike had the engaging trait of laughing before he answered any question, and his passion for his job, and for the way wildlife has come back to Ohio, was clear.

“It’s been a huge success,” he said. “I think when people see that wildlife, it gives them a real connection to nature and the parks.”

Mike thinks this is something we should all feel good about in a time when we usually hear bad or scary news about the environment.

Little Mr. Bear is a success story of a sort, a symbol of how people and wildlife can learn to live together when that once didn’t seem an option — or at least didn’t occur to our species’ side of the equation.

And I don’t know about you, but it makes me happier, much happier, that we’ve apparently evolved.

Contributing Editor Ron Rollins is a journalist who lives in Kettering. A podcast of his radio story can be heard at wyso.org.