In the last few years, wildlife -- including large wildlife -- have boomed in parklands and green spaces in southwestern Ohio. Some of the critters we’re talking about may even surprise you. WYSO Community Voices Producer Ron Rollins visits the Five Rivers MetroParks to learn more.
I love the outdoors. And I’ve seen how wildlife have gradually returned to the Miami Valley. Last winter, I saw something that stunned me: a bald eagle in downtown Dayton.
I was on Veterans Parkway along the Great Miami River, and there he was up in a tree. Bold as brass, white head gleaming. I still remember reading Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” as a teenager and being sad about the disappearing eagles. I had to learn more about this guy. I called Five Rivers MetroParks, and got their spokeswoman at the time, Beth Miller, on the phone. I told her what I’d seen.
She just laughed. “Ron, the eagles are old news around here,” she said. “We’ve got a bear.”
A bear. Right here in Montgomery County, Ohio.
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Mike Enright is the conservation biologist for Five Rivers. His job is to monitor and protect all the wildlife in the system’s 16,000 acres. On a rainy morning last spring, we struck out on the bear’s turf.
“Bears are quite lazy,” Enright tells me. “So they like to walk on trails just as much as people do. After a rain like this where the ground is really soft is an excellent time to look for bear tracks.”
“So, it really is a bit like Bigfoot sightings, isn’t it?” I ask.
“Yeah, and that is why when we get a sighting, we always go out and check, because, it could be somebody’s dog. We want to make sure it really is a [bear] sighting, and we also kind of want to gather some information around it to make sure he’s not displaying any behaviors he shouldn’t be. A single bear in 16,000 acres has a lot of room to hide, and people don’t see him regularly, so he obviously knows what he’s doing, in avoiding people,” Enright says.
“He hasn’t shown any signs of being interested in human garbage or interacting with people, so that’s a good sign for him and for us. If you see logs flipped over that are kind of scratched up, that is the bear looking for grubs. They will roll over logs that weigh 200, 300 pounds, so you know that’s a bear and not kids playing around in the woods. And my favorite is, bears leave very big piles of poop around that don’t look like anything else.”
I wonder, “If someone actually does encounter Mr. Bear as they’re out hiking around, what should they do?”
“Well, just be calm,” Enright says, “Don’t yell and scream at him. Just stop and let him go on his way. He’ll, if he hasn’t seen them, probably just keep doing whatever he is doing and move off into the woods.”
So you probably won’t see Mr. Bear no matter how hard you look. But I learned he’s really just the furry tip of a very large wildlife iceberg around here. Five Rivers is full of coyotes, beaver, foxes, all kinds of owls, wild turkeys, at least three nesting pairs of eagles, and so many deer they have to be controlled by bow hunting - or else they’d destroy the forest for all the other animals. There are even some big cats.
“We had our first bobcat here in the Twin Valley in 2003 and it’s a fun story how we realized it was here,” Enright says, “One of my co-workers was working late one evening and heard what she thought was a woman yelling at the top of her lungs, out in the park. So she same in and explained this to me, and I said this is February, that is not a woman yelling, that’s a bobcat mating call. So we started doing investigations, and since then the neighbors have reported seeing them, and we’ve also captured them on remote cameras.”
“Have cougars, mountain lions come back into Ohio?” I ask him.
“Ah, the jury is still out on that. I occasionally get reports of mountain lions, but they usually turn out to be yellow labs. But we still go out and investigate, because both South Dakota and northern Michigan have populations, so it’s theoretically possible they could migrate through.”
Wow, cougars! So, how did this happen? Well, it’s a combination of things - species are protected now, park systems like Five Rivers have added more green space and habitat over the years, streams are clean enough for restocking of fish that had disappeared. And the animals themselves have learned how to share space with us.
Enright says that’s okay - that the return of wildlife is something we should all feel pretty good about. “It’s been a great success. The conservation of wildlife, specifically in North America, has been a huge success. The populations kind of tanked in the late 1800s, early 1900s, but because people recognized that without action, wildlife would disappear, a lot of people took steps to preserve it, let it increase, regulate taking of wildlife and so really now, we’re reaping the effects of things done earlier in this century, with the wildlife coming back. And the big thing is, it provides a personal connection to nature. When people see a turkey, or a deer, or a bear, that is something that stays with them. People really enjoy that wildness in MetroParks. And that’s a big reason why I think the community has been so supportive of us, because they can come see things like that.”
We didn’t find the bear that day. Enright says it’s really like looking for a very small needle in a big 6,000-acre haystack. But it's also possible the bear has moved on.
“Eventually we expect him to probably move back down south looking for a female bear at some point in time. So we’re happy he’s here, but we understand it’s probably not going to be permanent.”