“People think it’s Bearmageddon, but it’s really not,” says California Department of Fish and Wildlife officer Andrew Hughan. But watch the local news, and it sure does seem like it. This weekend, popular hiking trails just outside the city were closed following a bear attack. And there’s currently a much-publicized hunt under way for for the bear responsible.
Think Los Angeles, and you probably don’t think bear. But the palm trees, silicone, and expensive cars are surrounded on three sides by mountains. And in addition to the mountain lions, big horn sheep, and coyotes, there are black bears. In the San Gabriel Mountains alone, there’s thought to be a population of 500 Ursus americanus.
This year’s bear season started with a splash. On June 9, a 200 lbs female bear attracted every news ‘copter in the region as she bathed in two backyard pools in suburban La Cañada, then fell asleep in a tree, while police and animal control officials surrounded her. There, they were able to ascertain by her ear tag that she was the same bear they had to tranquilize two weeks earlier, in the same neighborhood.
Anecdotally, bear sightings are booming. Sansho, IndefinitelyWild contributor Ty Brookhart’s Karelian bear dog, even chased one up a tree two weekends ago, just off Angeles Crest Highway.
Then early on Saturday morning, a man camping near Altadena suffered injuries when a bear tried to get into his tent. A statement from the Altadena Sheriff’s Station reads:
“Last night at approximately 2:00am a small bear pushed in a tent in Millard Campground above Altadena. The tent came down on a male adult and the bear appeared to be attempting to open the tent. The male was looking at his iPad when his tent fell down on him. Two other campers saw an approximately 120 pound bear running away from the area. The male did not know he was injured until he felt something dripping on his face. It appears the bear scratched the camper, resulting in a laceration on his forehead. The male was transported to a local hospital where approximately eighteen sutures were used to close the wound.”
“His injuries were consistent with an animal attack,” Hughan told us earlier today. CDFW has captured a bear they believe may be responsible, and are now waiting on the results of DNA tests using hair left at the scene. If those are conclusive, the bear will be euthanized. Amid much breathless TV coverage, the surrounding area was closed to hikers and campers this weekend.
What’s going on? “We’re seeing normal spring dispersal patterns,” explains Hughan. “Every spring, juvenile bears leave their mothers and search for new habitat.” As they wander, they may enter areas inhabited by humans. And, these young bears may not have yet learned to be wary of us.
In addition to dispersion, another seasonal factor is at play. A 1999 study of bear behavior in the San Gabriels found that they moved to low elevations in the spring following the, “phenological progression of berry producing plants and acorns.”
That same study also noted that bears regularly sought out food sources in human populated areas during this time of year: “Many residences have yards containing ornamental avocado and fig trees, while others contain small remnant avocado orchards. Bears frequently visit and obtain food from garbage cans and dumpsters, fruit trees, barbecues, and pet food bowls, and enter swimming pools.”
“It’s really a human problem, not a bear problem” explains Hughen. “Every year, people build further and further into bear habitat. They shouldn’t then be surprised to find that they’re living with bears.”
What can you do?
“A fed bear is a dead bear,” goes the old saying. Keeping bears out of your trash, yard, and pool isn’t just good for you, it’s good for the bears, too. Conditioning them to avoid human habitation helps ensure their safety.
In Lake Tahoe, where bears are a normal part of daily life, the government issues the following advice to residents:
- Garbage problems can be solved with the purchase and correct use of a bear-proof garbage container. Save money by sharing one with a neighbor!
- Keep garbage cans clean and deodorize them with bleach or unscented ammonia.
- Harvest fruit off trees as soon as it is ripe, and promptly collect fruit that falls.
- Do not feed wildlife.
- Keep barbecue grills clean.
- Feed pets inside.
- Securely block access to sites such as crawl spaces under decks and buildings to reduce the potential of hibernation under structures.
- Don't leave any scented products outside, even non-food items such as suntan lotion, insect repellent, soap and/or candles.
- Keep doors and windows secure from intrusions. Scents can lure bears inside.
Avoiding bear conflict while camping is just as simple. While in bear territory, store all food in an approved bear canister or provided locker. Police your campsite to clean up all spilled food or trash. Take pains to ensure no food smells unintentionally contaminate your sleeping area; if you’re cooking food, you may want to change clothes and clean up before going to bed. Anything that may attract a bear should be in that canister or locker.
The man injured by the curious bear on Saturday says he did not have any food in his tent. “But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t something there to attract the bear,” says Hughen. “Maybe he was barbecuing, and the smoke made his clothes appealing, maybe he spilled some sauce on his pants, maybe there was a Snicker’s wrapper in his pocket; bears have such a strong sense of smell that if it’s there, they’ll find it.”
If you’re particularly worried about bears while camping or recreating outdoors, carry a can of bear spray. It causes no permanent damage to the bear, but has proven almost completely successful at deterring them. More successful, in fact, than guns.
Sometimes the best solution is also the most obvious. If you live in an area with bears, travel through one, or plan to camp in bear habitat, get a dog.