- Associated Press - Saturday, September 19, 2015

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) - A black bear that roamed into Indiana from southwestern Michigan this summer was the first confirmed sighting of the species in the state in 144 years. Wildlife officials are saying it likely won’t be the last - and the next one might stay.

Black bears were eradicated in Indiana in the 1800s because of hunting and loss of habitat. Officials have expected they would come back at some point, but thought the most likely source would be via crossing the Ohio River from Kentucky or trekking in from Ohio, said Budd Veverka, an Indiana Department of Natural Resources farmland game research biologist.

The DNR is working on plans for bear management and public education due to the animal’s June appearance. While they expect it to return to Michigan to find a mate, more will likely follow.

“We want to be prepared for it. We want people to understand bear awareness, bear behavior and things they can do to minimize conflict,” Indiana DNR spokesman Phil Bloom said. “Obviously in other areas where they have black bears regularly, people are probably accustomed to them being around. But it’s a brand-new thing to us.”

Michigan has an estimated black bear population of 15,000 to 19,000 bears, with about 90 percent living in the Upper Peninsula. Black bears have recolonized eastern portions of Kentucky and Ohio, where officials estimate there about 85 black bears in the state last year, with the heaviest population in the northeast part of the state. Bears are on Ohio’s endangered species list, said John Windau, communications specialist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. And sightings are up from about 30 in 1998 to a peak of 225 in 2012.

There have been about 35 bear sightings overall in northern Indiana, with most of them around Michigan City, including the last one on Aug. 31 a few miles east.

When the bear was first reported in June, some people started putting out food hoping they would be able to see it, Veverka said. That made the situation worse because the bear started seeing people as a source of food and became more aggressive, likely leading it to go onto porches, he said.

Therefore, Indiana is planning a program informing the public what steps to take, Veverka said, following in the footsteps of Ohio and Michigan. Bears are only relocated if they are in a situation where escape is unlikely or if public safety is threatened.

Ohio wildlife officials encourage residents to bear-proof their yards by not putting out bird feed, storing trash receptacles in secure areas and keeping grills stored, Windau said. In Michigan, they are in the second year of teaching schoolchildren about bears and what people should do to avoid conflicts, said Katie Keen, a wildlife technician with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Veverka also has proposed having some traps made so they will be available if needed. The DNR had borrowed some traps to try to catch the bear that was going onto the patios and porches, pushing on doors of several homes.

“We’re hoping that the next time we have one come into the state people are educated enough that the bear just wanders comes in and doesn’t become an actual nuisance,” he said.

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