Black Bears Buck the Trend, Thrive in California

October 6, 2010

In an unusual reversal of most wildlife trends, the black bear population is at an all time high and occupies a greater range in California today than it did before the Gold Rush. At that time the state was home to both black bears and the California grizzly (Ursus californicus), which seemingly dominated every local ecological niche.

Grizzly and black bear territory overlapped in the forests of Northern California, down along the eastern length of the state, and into the Tehachapi Mountains of southern California, according to historical accounts. But grizzlies occupied the lowlands, including most of the Bay Area.

According to California Grizzly, often sited as the most comprehensive book on the topic, the statewide grizzly population was once 10,000. It said one account puts a grizzly in San Francisco’s Mission Dolores in 1850. Another said, “within five or six leagues from San Francisco, they are often seen in herds.” (A league is between 2.5 and 4.5 miles, and grizzlies are typically considered solitary animals.) A Napa Valley pioneer reported, “it was not unusual to see 50 or 60 within twenty-four hours.”

But a menace to settlers, the grizzlies were driven to extinction in a matter of decades; the last one was shot in 1922 in Tulare County. Roughly thirty years later it was declared the official state animal.

Meanwhile the more mild-mannered black bears have taken advantage of the vacant habitat, ambling into new territory. “We now have black bears in San Luis Obispo County,” said Marc Kenyon, statewide black bear coordinator. “They’re moving up into Monterey County, and the San Benito County area. We’re getting spotted reports but they are moving and expanding their range into those areas.”

In May 2003, a young male black bear was spotted rummaging through a dumpster in the Point Reyes National Seashore, making it the region’s first bear sighting in 130 years.

Within days the bear had wandered south to Kirby Cove in the Marin Headlands, just west of the Golden Gate Bridge. After that last reported sighting, most assume the bear lumbered north, where a known population of black bears lives east of Bodega Bay in Sonoma County.

Bringing back ursus

Black bears clearly can inhabit Marin County if they choose, but Kenyon remains doubtful that bears would ever stick around Marin or anywhere else in the Bay Area, blaming habitat fragmentation and the plethora of freeways. Bears dispersing into new territory require corridors of oak woodlands or Manzanita where the bears feed on acorns and berries respectively.

But it would also appear that access to human food could provide could be an incentive, too.

“A bear is pretty much wired to follow its nose. They are eating machines from the time they wake up to the time they go to sleep,” said Kenyon. “Depending on wind, humidity and temperature, they can smell bacon for about two to three miles.”

As for grizzlies returning to their native state, a topic that’s been discussed seriously from time to time, it is unrealistic given California’s large population, according to Reginald Barrett, professor of wildlife biology and management at the University of California Berkeley.

“Basically you’d be committing those bears to death,” Barrett said, “because sooner or later they’ll get in trouble. And any grizzly that gets in trouble, they get shot, just as they did in Yellowstone last year.”

Keeping them wild

Black bears’ taste for human food is hardly a new problem and since 2003 the Department of Fish and Game has in part tried to combat it through Keep Me Wild, a public education campaign.

“It’s not a bear problem, but a people problem,” said Lorna Bernard, a marketing specialist for Fish and Game. And as the problem increased statewide, the department found that killing nuisance bears caused public outrage.

“From a population perspective it wasn’t a problem,” said Bernard, “but from a PR perspective it was a really big problem, and we wanted to avoid experiencing it over and over.”

“Depending on wind, humidity and temperature, bears can smell bacon for about two to three miles.”

As a result, the department has spent $150,000 on developing a website, educational materials and training staff to assist callers with problem bears. Information on properly storing trash, dealing with nuisance animals, and laws against feeding wildlife can be found at Keep Me Wild. Measuring success is difficult, Bernard said, but they intend to continue and even expand the campaign.

The Department of Fish and Game says there are few options that have proven fruitful in dealing with nuisance bears, which is why they allow the bears to be exterminated. But not everyone agrees with that approach.

The BEAR League, a non-profit organization in the Lake Tahoe Basin, works to educate the public about proper food storage, participates in bear aversion training programs and is on call to help with problem bears.

Putting the fear of humans in bears

In response to pressure from groups like The BEAR League, Fish and Game has embarked on a bear aversion program that aims to leave young bears scared of humans.

Bears that have not yet broken into homes or other buildings, but have been seen lurking in urban areas, are drugged, captured and tagged. As the bear wakes up, wildlife biologists chase it with dogs, loud noises and rubber bullets.

“We try to relate bad experience to what they had originally been doing near to people,” said Jason Holley, a Fish and Game wildlife biologist in Tahoe. “We don’t expect them to go back and be wild bears and never see them again. We just want them to go nocturnal and not break into houses.”

Over three years the project has run approximately 30 Tahoe bears through the aversion program and to date half of those bears have not yet become repeat offenders. Just five bears have gone through the training this year, and Holley says it will be several more years before they determine whether to continue the program.

Wildlife biologist Barrett was doubtful that an aversion approach would work and said, “I’m not aware of any aversion program that’s been successful long term. You might be able to have a few successes.”

The day I spoke to Holley he was driving to an aversion release site. They had trapped the bear around North Star in Tahoe after reports that it was hanging around homes. Holly was preparing to determine the gender and age and then release it.

If you encounter a bear, you can alert the Department of Fish and Game through their Wildlife Incident Reporting Tool, a new website that allows the public to log wildlife sightings.

About the Author

Victoria Schlesinger is the editor in chief of Bay Nature.

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