BRUNSWICK HILLS TWP. — There have been remarkable shifts in Ohio’s landscape over the past two centuries.
In 1803, when the first settlers arrived, an amazing 95 percent of the state was covered in dense forest. But by 1903, only 13 percent was forested as logged trees fed massive iron furnaces in the south and the land was farmed.
However, by 2003, 31 percent of Ohio was once again covered by forest through conservation and reforestation efforts. As the landscape changed, so did the animals that inhabited Ohio.
Daniel Bertsch, chief naturalist of the Medina County Park District, spoke about Ohio’s “vanished animals” as well as some relative newcomers to the state during a Sunday hike at Plum Creek Park South.
Among the vanished include majestic mountain lions. Although they are roaming east these days, the closest recent sighting of a mountain lion has been near Chicago, Bertsch said.
Elk, the much larger cousin of deer, also disappeared, as did the American bison. The bison used to roam through Ohio creating “runs,” or clear patches of trails, through the forest. Bertsch said the American Indians would burn a grazing ground for the bison to ensure their return.
Gray wolves also fled, along with the lynx, a pointy-eared relative of the bobcat with long legs and massive paws to travel through deep snow. Martens and fishers, weasel-like creatures, also vanished.
Bertsch said conservationists recently made an effort in Pennsylvania to bring back the elk but that would not necessarily be a good idea for Ohio.
“Why wouldn’t it be wise to bring elk back?” Bertsch asked the hikers. “We already have deer. It would be like putting kerosene on a fire,” he said of the deer’s overpopulation. The elk’s size would make them even more hazardous for drivers, and the males become very aggressive during the rut, or mating, season.
As these animals were “extirpated,” from Ohio, meaning they fled a geographical part of their habitat but did not go extinct as a species, other species moved in.
Fox squirrels, coyotes and the American badger all roamed into Ohio once settlers thinned the dense forest. Some previously extirpated animals, such as the beaver, black bear and river otter, even returned.
Conservationists successfully brought back several species, and they returned with vigor: the Canada goose and the whitetail deer, which was gone from Ohio by 1903, are now so populous they are considered pests.
Of course, that did not stop the group from halting to gaze at three deer gracefully leap away into the woods during the hike, something the hikers would not have seen in 1903.
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