LEWISBURG, Ohio (AP) -- A pair of outdoor writers canoeing the Pymatuming Creek in northeast Ohio were trying to entice smallmouth bass a few years ago when one of the jigs hung up on a branch jutting out from the shore.
Maneuvering the canoe close to shore to free the jig, my partner suddenly cried out, ''Holy Cow, that's a bear track!''
Looking at the indentation in the muddy creek bank, I knew the medium dog-sized print in the mud was indeed a bear track.
But, bears in Ohio?
Since 1993, when the Ohio Division of Natural Resources began investigating and tracking reported bear sightings, the numbers have risen from 25 to more than 66 last year, spread over 31 counties.
''The number of bears in Ohio has almost tripled since 1993, and that's probably a conservative estimate,'' said Dave Swanson, a state wildlife biologist.
Although black bears inhabited Ohio prior to settlement of the region, unregulated hunting and extensive deforestation by the mid-1800s significantly reduced the state's bear population.
Bears that remained were shot or trapped.
By 1850, black bears were considered nonexistent in Ohio, Swanson said.
However, occasional reports of their presence, particularly in south-central and southeastern Ohio, persisted and, in 1973, included a report of a female with cubs.
In 1999, there was a sighting of a bear bounding across a golf course. The same year, a bear was killed by a vehicle on a U.S. highway.
Most of the bear reports are believed to involve year-old animals that have migrated from Pennsylvania and West Virginia, where sizable bear populations exist.
There are about 8,000 black bears in West Virginia and up to 10,000 in Pennsylvania.
Even with the growth of the species' population in Ohio, chances of seeing a black bear are slim and the chances of being attacked even smaller.
''Black bears are not territorial toward people and are usually afraid of being attacked. These bears are not prone to bite people,'' said Dr. Lynn Rogers, a wildlife research biologist now retired from the U.S. Forest Service.
Black bears are a protected species in Ohio and injuring or killing one is a violation of Ohio wildlife laws.
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