Black bear encounters increase in area

Better food/garbage storage can help keep bears away

Carmen GeorgeAugust 23, 2012 

With less rain this year, black bear activity has picked up as the animal's food supply dwindles.

And with less natural food available to them, human food starts looking even more appetizing.

"Last year, snow pack was 199% of normal, so there was an abundance of food," said Kari Cobb, public affairs officer for Yosemite National Park. "This year, there is less than 50% of normal snow pack ... the food supply is already drying up and bears are trying to find an easy way to get food. There are a lot of calories in a Snickers bar. You have to eat a lot of berries to make that up."

Several Mountain Area residents have also reported increased bear activity around their homes this year, including an attempted home break-in and continual garbage feasting.

Year-to-date bear incidents in Yosemite are up about 10% from what they were at this time last year, and up 159% in related damages -- about $32,000 compared to $12,000.

While bear incidents in the park have dropped dramatically over the years -- 1,584 incidents in 1998 compared to 114 in 2011, largely due to increased public education about bears and prevention methods, like installing metal bear boxes for food storage -- more work is still needed to keep lowering those numbers.

Yet keeping bears away continues to be a struggle for many.

Bears in the area

Alice Young, who lives off Crane Valley Road (426) in Oakhurst, had a bear attempt to get into her house earlier this month for the first time in her 39 years of living in the area.

She awoke early in the morning to a loud noise and large bear paw prints all over her kitchen sink beneath a small window. Apparently the bear had stuck part of its body through the opening, but was too large to get completely inside, she said.

Young said she had a small bag of trash, devoid of food, outside, and the kitchen was clear of food except for a closed bag of potato chips and cookies.

"It's been two or three years since I've had problems with bears coming around -- I think this year they are especially hungry and thirsty," said Young, who thinks the bear was after a bag of cat food nearby inside.

While she said she knows black bears are not confrontational by nature, the thought of startling a bear in the kitchen was still scary.

Another Oakhurst couple with two small children also reported an increase in bear activity this year closer to the center of town, at their home located off School Road.

Since they moved in six years ago, bears have gotten into their garbage at least 30 times, which they keep in a covered wooden trailer outside.

"I don't fault the bears for it. I'm very compassionate for wildlife and animals and I love the place that we live ... but it's just getting to be too much," said Desiree Petros, 29, whose become fearful for her children's safety, ages three and one. "The bear is here all the time now."

One of the bears often walks by their living room window, and often doesn't respond to yelling or banging on pots and pans. Petros said Fish and Game told her and husband Clinton that they no longer relocate problem bears, and that they can only kill a bear if it's damaged private property, following an investigation.

"When I think about Fish and Game coming to euthanize the bear, that saddens me too," Petros said. "I don't want that to happen either."

Keeping bears away

"Euthanizing -- killing the bear -- is just an easy, quick solution. It doesn't really fix the problem," said David McFadden of North Fork, who worked as a trapper for the Fresno County Department of Agriculture for 32 years and taught biology at Fresno State and Fresno Pacific University.

"Whatever drew the bear in, if you leave it there, another bear is just going to come ... You have to do everything you can do not to attract a bear to your property."

"Probably the best thing to do to keep bears away is to lock your garbage in your garage and clean it out regularly with pneumonia to clear out the scent," said Tim Kroeker, Fish and Game wildlife biologist for Madera County and the southern half of Mariposa County, who usually receives a couple bear calls a week throughout the summer. "Bear problems usually stem from things people can easily fix."

Some other solutions include: Bringing pet food and dishes inside before dark, securing garbage, picking up fallen fruit from trees, moving hummingbird feeders out of paws reach, stringing electrical wire around chicken coops, or purchasing wildlife resistant systems, he said.

"Bears are very intelligent, so they can move easily from one step to another," Kroeker said. "In a sense, they can be trained by people to cause the damage."

"If we make the mistake and let bears learn things they shouldn't, it's not their fault, it's ours," McFadden said. "If there's a plate of Danish pastries at your work every morning and it suddenly isn't there tomorrow, and still isn't there for the next three or four days, you might say, 'I better eat breakfast before I go to work.' The bear's still going to come back a few times and check on it, but eventually, he's going to see there's no free lunch there and go somewhere else."

Bears are most active June through September, and in Eastern Madera County, most incidents occur above Oakhurst, near Bass Lake and in North Fork, Kroeker said.

"A lot of our calls about bears generate from tourists and campers," Kroeker said. "In most cases, Mountain Area residents are dealing with them the right way."

While camping, it's important to store food or toiletries, like toothpaste and lotion, in metal bear proof lockers if available.

"Bears can smell through aluminum cans, food cans and coke cans, so those aren't safe from bears either," Cobb said.

Food can remain in a vehicle during the day, but never at night, she said. However, bears do sometimes break into vehicles during the day, and any food in a car should never be visible from the outside, she said. If a bear enters camp, yelling and throwing small things like pine cones usually makes them leave, she said.

"Black bears are very smart," Cobb said. "If they break into a red mini van to get food, they'll remember that and are more curious about the next red mini van that comes along. They are very curious ... so keep your car clean and give them nothing to be curious about."

Understanding bears

"One thing that is important to remember is black bears are not like grizzly bears. They are not as aggressive," Cobb said. "Black bears are looking for an easy meal, they are opportunists."

Yosemite and California Fish and Game officials said injuries caused by bears are extremely rare, and usually only in some cases when a bear is caught by surprise or feels cornered.

"We've had a few swipes here or there, but they are not common and we've never had a bear literally attack someone," Cobb said. "It's always been a scenario of, 'wrong place, wrong time' -- running into people."

Yosemite's only animal-related fatality was from a deer in the 1990s.

"The danger of a bear is mostly in surprising him. Just coming up on him real quick," McFadden said. "If a bear's coming in around your house, he's not expecting any trouble. He's just looking for food. He doesn't want to hurt you ... I would say fear of bears is ignorance. Most people don't understand animals at all ... He's not trying to be mean or anything, he's just doing whatever nature or God intended him to do. He's just being a bear."

Black bears -- the only bear species left in California -- vary in color, from dark to brown, blonde or red. They usually aren't steady hibernators -- waking up periodically in the winter when temperatures rise, and usually don't hibernate in the foothills, Kroeker said.

"If you do encounter a bear, they are typically not aggressive and don't want to confront people," Kroeker said. "They are shy, so just be assertive and make yourself big."

If visitors in Yosemite encounter a bear, they are encouraged to report it to the Save-A-Bear Hotline at (209) 372-0322.

Giving them a chance

Keeping human-bear interactions down not only helps keep them wild, it helps save their lives.

California Fish and Game and National Park Service officials no longer tranquilize and relocate repeat "problem" bears. Although uncommon, policy today is euthanization.

Another threat to bears is speed -- vehicles. Earlier this summer, a bear cub was struck and killed by a car as low as Highway 41 and Road 406, between Yosemite Lakes Park and Fresno.

This year in Yosemite, 17 bears were reported hit and five confirmed dead.While numbers fluctuate, there's not a decreasing trend. The fewest bears reported hit was nine in 1997, compared to the park's largest number -- 28 in 2010.

"Animals aren't the bad guys, they are just animals," said retired trapper McFadden. "We are the bad guys. We go into their territory and we want to build our houses and have livestock and everything under the sun. Where is the animal supposed to go? ... You have to understand that when you move into the mountains, you are moving into the animals backyards. You are the interloper, not them."

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