AR-News: Bear encounters rising in North Coast

Jill Kiesow jkiesow at
Tue Jul 15 10:56:02 EDT 2003

Bear encounters rising in North Coast
Improved habitat, urban sprawl into rural areas result in more contact with 

July 14, 2003


A trio of trash cans tempted a black bear roaming near a west Sonoma County
home. He had one feast, but was thwarted a second time when homeowner Ron
Kourik tied down the lids.

Another black bear showed his strength, ripping apart sturdy hive boxes to
scoop pawfuls of honey in woods northeast of Santa Rosa. Beekeeper Don
Cornelius put up electric fencing afterward to keep bears at bay.

One black bear wouldn't leave after eating a Napa County family's goat. They
had him killed after state Fish and Game officials said the bear wasn't a
candidate for removal to a more remote area.

"When I walk in the woods, just from what I've seen in hunting and with the
bees, it seems to me the bear population is getting bigger and healthier and
moving our way," Cornelius said.

These bear encounters are among more than 70 reported to state Fish and Game
officials on the North Coast in the past 2-1/2 years.

Half were sightings. The remainder mostly involved bears getting into trash
cans and creating other nuisances. Bear attacks are very rare.

More encounters can be expected if California's bear population continues to
grow and returns to historic habitat where bears haven't been seen in
notable numbers for decades.

"It's all about food," said Mike Wade, Fish and Game's supervising warden
for Sonoma, Mendocino, Lake and Marin counties. "It's like a checkerboard.
One gets a square and they like to protect their own turf. So that's why the
population starts spreading out."

Bear encounters, particularly in the Lake Tahoe basin, led state Fish and
Game to work with animal advocates on a public education campaign -- "Keep
Me Wild" -- launched this spring.

"There have been instances where black bears have been needlessly killed
simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time," said Camilla
Fox, spokeswoman for the Animal Protection Institute. "Fortunately, I think
most people look favorably on black bears re-colonizing where they once

The state's bear population has increased from 10,000 to 30,000 over the
past two decades. The estimate is based on analysis of the age and sex of
bears killed by hunters each year, according to the state Department of Fish
and Game.

Some scientists say the state's estimate may be high. More intensive,
habitat-centered studies might distinguish areas where bears are growing in
number from areas where they are leaving the backcountry for the lure of
trash and other easy food sources.

Whatever the scenario, bears have become a management issue in more than 30
states and even on the outskirts of some large cities, including Phoenix,
Salt Lake City and Albuquerque, N.M.

"The encounters in your area are not unique in the Western U.S. It's
becoming more and more common," said Jon Beckmann, a bear expert with the
Wildlife Conservation Society.

Native to California and much of North America, black bears range across
two-thirds of the United States, much of Canada and into Mexico.
Improved habitat is the most likely reason populations have steadily risen
in California.

Decades of aggressive firefighting and a steady decrease in logging have
been critical to improving habitat, said Jim Swanson, Fish and Game
supervising biologist for the north and central coast regions.

With more bears roaming the state and given their need for sizable home
ranges, some are turning up on the fringes of their known range. Stretches
of eastern Sonoma, Lake and Napa counties are now on the state's bear range

Able to travel 30 miles a day without much difficulty, bears can cover ample

A bear sighted at the Point Reyes National Seashore over Memorial Day
weekend -- the first in that area of Marin County in more than a century --
likely roamed down through coastal woodlands from Mendocino County.
"They're real gypsy-like. They just amble around. They don't really have any
natural predators," Wade said.

Young males often are the bears found at the margins of expanding

"They are looking for habitat areas, so they do a lot of wandering around,"
Swanson said.

"That's when they sometimes get into trouble," he added. "That's when we get
the phone calls that they're in the garbage can or running down the streets

Calls about bear encounters on the North Coast have more than doubled since
the regional Fish and Game office began keeping logs.

Recent encounters reveal the different ways Fish and Game responds to bears
in our midst.

Early one June morning, Kourik heard rustling outside a second-story window
of his home west of Occidental. He shined a flashlight and watched a bear
eat from trash cans with elastic cords holding down lids to keep raccoons

"He flattened out the hooks enough to get the bungee cord off," Kourik said.
"Its body was almost as big as the trash can. He looked pretty big to me."

Knowing another easy meal might be had, the bear returned a week later. Only
this time, the trash can lids were tied down. The bear struggled for a few
minutes and then ambled back into the dark.

Before leaving, however, the bear snapped tree limbs in a small orchard and
munched on apples and plums.

"What's going to happen this summer when he knows those fruit trees are
there?" he asked. "That's one thing I'm worried about."

Fish and Game officials instructed Kourik to keep the trash can lids tied
down and remove all ripened fruit from trees or the ground.

"After all, they know a good thing. Then it's just imprinted on their mind,
this is easy work," Wade said.

Apiaries spread across orchards and meadows are a favored target for bears,
as Cornelius learned last summer.

A bear ripped through several dozen hive boxes the Guerneville beekeeper
keeps in a wooded area between Santa Rosa and Calistoga.

"Supposedly a bear will come in and mess up two or three hives a night until
he's had his fill and then take off. Then you get on their route," Cornelius
said. "One gentleman I know had a problem with a bear for several months and
he had to abandon the site for awhile."

Cornelius wanted to protect his investment, having lost $2,400 in equipment
and honey -- some 700 pounds of the sweet stuff.

Fish and Game officials urged him to put up an electric fence, which he did
at a cost of $700.

While the bear didn't return, Cornelius will keep his hive boxes protected
because he expects more bears to come through the area.

"It's just the lay of the land and how they move and what they can get to,"
he said. "One day that might turn out to be a spot as good as he can find
and then he'll live here. Hopefully the fences will keep him out."

Amy Taylor feared a bear that killed and ate one of her daughter's pygmy
goats in the mountain community of Angwin in Napa County would never leave
their property.

The goats munched grass to reduce fire danger. When Taylor found one goat
pacing in his barn and noticed the family's dog was agitated, she went to
find the other goat. Instead, she found the bear.

"I was walking back to the wooded area and the dog wouldn't go any farther.
So I like dragged him and as soon as I pulled him I heard this noise and the
bear was climbing up the tree. The dog and goat took off and left me there,"
recalled a still shaken Taylor.

The bear stayed inside the fenced two-acre property for two days.

"We couldn't leave our house. We couldn't play outside. We kept the dog and
goat in the garage," she said. "It was quite frightening."

Fish and Game officials told the family they could have the bear killed
because it killed livestock and wouldn't move on. The family could obtain a
so-called depredation permit or purchase a hunting license. A relative with
a hunting permit killed the bear.

The family was both frightened and saddened by the experience.

Taylor said her daughter, 4-year-old Starr, talked animatedly about Frohike
the goat being eaten by a bear and drew pictures of large bears towering
over other animals. "Clearly she was a little bothered by it."

Taylor suspected the bear was seeking a new home range after pine and oak
woodlands were removed for vineyards in the area. She hoped Fish and Game
would have trapped and moved the bear to a more remote region.

"This was really a horrible experience all the way around," she said.

Bears are rarely moved. If bears become a nuisance or damage property,
moving them only creates problems somewhere else.

Management efforts by Fish and Game emphasize public education so people can
understand bear behavior better.

"People are moving out to where the wildlife are. A lot of them don't know
how to deal with wildlife, so the interactions aren't very positive,"
Swanson said. "We're trying to figure out how to deal with this."

By securing garbage cans, keeping pet food inside, fencing gardens, covering
compost piles, removing ripened and dropped fruit, and other efforts, people
can help prevent bears from becoming nuisances and hopefully keep them wild.

Feeding wildlife is illegal.

Permits to kill bears only are issued if a bear has caused property damage
and doesn't respond to efforts to make the animal leave an area. Examples of
property damage include breaking into cabins, tearing open cars and killing
livestock, often sheep and calves.

"There are some animals that get in the wrong place at the wrong time that
are escorted back to their native habitat. There's no rehabilitation for
sheep-killing bears," Wade said.

While animal advocates helped prepare the education campaign, they contend
it won't be enough to significantly reduce the number of bears killed in the
state each year.

"It's not that bad on paper. It's a nice first step," Fox said.

Fish and Game, she said, should work with advocacy groups and communities to
change how people behave as much as how bears do.

Fox said the "Keep Me Wild" campaign needs to go beyond posters, bumper
stickers and advertisements.

The campaign is drawing attention from cities and counties that are seeking
the state's help with bear issues, said Steve Martarano, a Fish and Game

"It is too early to see the full results. But one of the good things about a
campaign like this is it gets everyone in the state thinking about these
issues," he said.

On the North Coast, encounters remain rare but leave a lasting impression.

"You hear rumors about one was spotted here or there, but I wasn't expecting
to see one," Taylor said. "It's made us aware.

"I realize that I'm living in their space."

Article can be viewed at:

Posted by:
Animal Protection Institute
P.O. Box 22505, Sacramento, CA 95822
Ph: 916-447-3085 x215 /Fax: 916-447-3070
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