Could black bears again inhabit Indiana?

Back in the day, black bears were historically abundant across Indiana and sightings were common. There were good numbers throughout the Hoosier state with the exception of the northwest portions where prairie areas dominated the rural landscape. Unregulated hunting and habitat loss caused black bears to be eliminated from Indiana and much of the Midwest by 1850. Before 2015 when a black bear entered our state at the Michigan border, the last confirmed report of a black bear in Indiana was in 1871.

In June 2015, after a 144 year absence, wildlife biologists with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources verified the presence of a black bear in St. Joseph County, making headlines in just about every news outlet. The bear was believed to be a young male. It spent most of the next five months in Indiana and was last reported in the state on Oct. 13, 2015.

In March 2016, the bear emerged from its winter den in Michigan and unfortunately exhibited habituated behaviors, including a loss of fear of humans. Based on the Michigan Department of Natural Resources “Problem Bear Management Guidelines,” such behaviors are considered a threat to public safety. Consequently, the Michigan officials trapped and humanely euthanized the bear on April 9, 2016.

Then within several months another black bear was confirmed at the opposite end of the state in Harrison, Washington and Clark counties, where it continues to roam the countryside. It is believed this bear likely swam across the Ohio River from Kentucky, which has a growing population of the species. As of late, it seems to be hanging around the Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge.

“It could be a matter of time before we have more migrating in from Kentucky,” said my friend Bob Sawtelle, IDNR property manager for O’Bannon Woods State Park, which lies in extreme southern Indiana. “There have been reports of bears in Kentucky counties bordering the Ohio River, so all they have to do is swim across then they will be in Indiana,” he added. Other DNR officials say it is possible black bears could re-establish populations in the heavily wooded portions of southern Indiana.

In addition to bears, the DNR does occasionally receive reports of mountain lions and gray wolves roaming our state. Although there are no breeding populations of these species occasionally an individual may pass through from neighboring states. If you would happen to see a large mammal uncommon in our state the DNR has a way to let them know. Their website has a large mammal report form or you can call the Division of Fish and Wildlife at (812) 334-1137.

Black bears are interesting animals and very adaptable. Males typically weigh 150-400 pounds with females tipping the scales between 100-300 pounds. They are omnivores, feeding on anything from grass and berries to deer carcasses and other types of meat. Bears are intelligent and possess a keen sense of smell, able to detect food from up to a mile away. Some bears, especially males, can travel up to 20 miles in a single day. Biologists classify them as “crepuscular”, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk.

Residents in many states co-exist peacefully by not harassing bears and keeping attractants (food sources, trash, bird feeders, etc.) away from them. Once a bear associates humans with a reliable food source, they will almost always return.

Black bears are rarely aggressive toward humans. Most problems arise when bears associate food with humans, causing problems for both man and beast. It’s never a good idea to feed bears, even if you consider it helping wildlife. Doing so increases the likelihood of negative bear-human interactions. Unfortunately, a fed bear often becomes a dead bear due to increased aggressiveness associated with the loss of fear of humans.

If you would be fortunate in seeing a bear or any large mammal for that matter, it’s best to enjoy it from a distance.

Laws regarding black bears in Indiana are pretty specific. They are are currently listed as an exotic mammal and protected under Indiana Administrative Code 312 9-3-18.5 (b-1), which prohibits the killing of a black bear except by a resident landowner or tenant while the animal is “destroying or causing substantial damage to property owned or leased by the landowner or tenant.”