Spring means bears are active, hungry

Apr 26, 2023 | Front Page

A bear raids this unsuspecting neighbor’s trash can (photo by CA Dept. of Fish and Wildlife)

By Mike Harris – Special to The Alpine Mountaineer

Early last Monday morning, while I was walking my golden retriever, we came across another sign that spring is really underway: a bag of household trash scattered all over the street.

Yes, it’s that time of year again when bears are active, hungry, and looking for anything easy they can get to eat.

“Bears are attracted to anything their powerful noses detect, including trash, bird seed, pet food, and fallen fruit,” said Human Wildlife Conflict Biologist Kevin Howells, who covers the San Bernardino Mountains for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “The bear that has learned to find food rewards around homes becomes ‘habituated,’ meaning it loses the healthy fear that keeps bears – and people – safe. Allowing bears to access food creates a dangerous situation. Prevention is the key.

“The best way to prevent conflicts with bears is to remove attractants,” he explained. “Homeowners and short-term rental visitors should store trash cans inside a secure garage or outbuilding, and put your trash out the morning of pickup.”

Trash containers should be kept clean to eliminate attractive odors. “Recycling containers also should be rinsed clean,” he said. “Allowing bears to access food rewards creates a dangerous situation.”

California’s black bear population is robust and has increased over the past few decades, he explained. Since the extinction of the grizzly bear in California, black bears have expanded throughout much of the state. The statewide population is estimated at 30,000 to 40,000 bears, with some 300-400 inhabiting the San Bernardino Mountains.

Black bears are the only bears found in the wild in California, he explained. They do come in many different colors, however, from solid black to shades of brown and tan, or “cinnamon.” Some have patches of different colors, such as a white blaze on the chest or lighter muzzles.”

In our mountains, black bears don’t really hibernate doing the winter, he said, but their activity levels are really slow. A sow black bear, however, will stay in a den if she is pregnant, and when she gives birth, the momma bear and her cubs stay in the den until spring.

Black bears regularly travel through our mountain communities. The good news is human injuries from black bears are rare in California. Bears – like most wild animals – are naturally afraid of humans.

“However, they are wild animals and can be unpredictable,” Howells stressed. “Those rare incidents in which humans have been injured by black bears tend to be defensive; the bear was startled, cornered, or was defensive of her cubs.”

If someone sees a sow and her cubs, and they want to use their cell phone to take a photo, should they?

“If you’re able to photograph a sow with cubs using your cell phone, it means you’re too close and in danger of provoking a response from a defensive sow,” he cautioned. “Never get in between a sow and her cubs. If you see a cub alone, or up a tree (where cubs go for safety), back away. The sow is likely nearby, so give them room to reunite.”

What should someone do if they accidentally walk up on a bear? I asked.

“Bears are naturally afraid of humans, so making noise periodically helps bears recognize and avoid you,” he said. “If you see a bear before it notices you, don’t approach. Stand still, enjoy, and then move away. If a bear sees you, back away slowly. Never run; running may trigger a chase response. If a bear approaches, wave your arms and yell “Hey Bear,” until it leaves the area.”

While it’s fun to see a bear and even take pictures or videos, you’re telling the bear that it’s alright to be close to you, he added.

“Protect bears – and people – by not teaching a bear to become comfortable near people,” he stressed. “That leads to more conflict and ultimately a bad outcome for a now-habituated bear.”


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