TIFFIN, Ohio -- Wildlife officer Matt Leibengood was skeptical when a report came in through the sheriff's office here recently, indicating that signs of a black bear had been observed in Seneca County.
The county in north central Ohio is about 200 miles from Pittsburgh and consists mostly of farmland.
"I wasn't sure what to make of it at first," said Mr. Leibengood of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources' Division of Wildlife. "It just sounded very strange and unusual for this part of the state."
After examining the evidence, Mr. Leibengood was convinced -- it was a black bear.
The individuals reporting the signs of a bear had collected scat and had taken photos of tracks in the snow. Mr. Leibengood got assistance from the Division of Wildlife's District II office in Findlay. Collectively, they arrived at one conclusion.
"We've confirmed it was black bear sign," he said. "It was like nothing I've ever seen before around here."
Black bears are considered endangered and are protected in Ohio, so it is illegal to hunt or harm them, he said.
"Since this bear hasn't caused problems for people, and it is elusive and avoiding contact with people, that leads us to believe it is wild," he said, and not an escaped pet. "This is not something we need to be afraid of or go in search of. It's exciting to think that maybe we're doing something right with conservation and habitat restoration and we would see bear activity here, but it is best now to just leave it alone."
Black bears are native to Ohio but were believed to be absent from the state around the mid-19th century because of the clearing of forests for agriculture and because of unregulated hunting.
Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky and Michigan all have established populations of black bears and hunting seasons for them. In 2011, Pennsylvania hunters harvested nearly 4,400 black bears.
Ohio started compiling black bear sighting reports in 1993, and since then, bears have been confirmed in 50 of Ohio's 88 counties. Most of the sightings occur in the counties that border the forested areas of Western Pennsylvania.
Block News Alliance consists of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio. Matt Markey is a reporter for The Blade.