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from The San Francisco Chronicle

    Shocking bear fact -- sighting on Peninsula

Tom Stienstra Sunday, June 24, 2001

The Bay Area's most shocking wildlife story in 50 years has been verified by two residents who saw a bear only 5 miles south of San Francisco that had been hit by a car.

Vicki Sliwa, a newcomer to the Bay Area, saw the bear lying along the Peninsula's Skyline Boulevard, just south of San Bruno Avenue adjacent to the Crystal Springs Watershed. It is the first verified black bear sighting within a 50-mile radius of San Francisco in the past 39 years.

"It was a Sunday afternoon, driving south on Skyline, and then suddenly, there it was, a bear lying in a heap on the gravel shoulder," Sliwa said. "Traffic was light, but everybody was slowing down to look at it, and then there it was on the right. It was definitely a bear, not a big one, but probably about 150 to 200 pounds, pure black."

continued below)

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The same episode with matching details -- Skyline Boulevard, three weeks ago, late Sunday afternoon, black bear hit by a car -- was reported by Scott Archambalt, also a Peninsula resident who was driving by. By the time CalTrans and the DFG were on the scene, the bear was gone.

The reality that bears still live in the Bay Area could be the wildlife story of the ages for a region populated with 5.5 million people, the fifth largest metropolitan area in the country. It validates the success of protecting open space in the foothills, with 150 significant parks and 1.2 million acres of greenbelt.

Dennis Baldwin of the DFG said it's likely that a passing driver illegally picked up the animal.

"We've had that happen with other animals many times," Baldwin says. "We get a report that a mountain lion has been hit by a car, we go out and find a blood spot, but no animal around. People go out and pick them up."

As with so many shocking wildlife stories, this incident was overlooked by the media. I came upon it by complete accident. A week ago Thursday evening, I was eating dinner at a Berkeley restaurant when a woman spotted the grizzly bear claw necklace I often wear for good luck.

"That's a bear claw, right?" she asked. When I nodded with a "Yep," she added with complete innocence, "I saw a bear hit by a car the other day."

Then came forth the details. When I asked why she didn't report such an extraordinary incident, she appeared surprised that seeing a bear was unusual.

"It's so wooded near there, I assumed they lived there," Sliwa said, referring to the Crystal Springs chain of three lakes and the surrounding state wildlife preserve. "I thought that it was just where the bears lived."

Later she said, "I didn't think it was odd until I told you."

Then it came out that she had moved to the Bay Area just six months ago, taking a job as a professional in the publishing industry. She appeared extremely clear, sharp and well-dressed, and clearly thought her story was quite unremarkable. It was a similar story with Archambalt, who also moved to the Bay Area in the past year to take a job as a computer professional.

In the past 50 years, there have been 11 documented bear sightings in the Bay Area region, and of those, nine have come in the past five years. Of those nine, the previous episode taking place closest to San Francisco was 50 miles away in Salinas, earlier this month. There have also been other reported incidents of people finding bear scat, paw prints, claw marks on trees and occasionally a fleeting glimpse.

The sudden increase in bear sightings is likely a natural expansion of a healthy bear population in California that is estimated at 25,000 across 46 million acres of habitat. But for bears to migrate to the Peninsula would be remarkable because it is walled off from other bear habitat by the ocean, mass population, highways, the arid Diablo range and San Joaquin Valley. Field scout Rich Coats traced the entire perimeter and found only a few culverts under highways in Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and Monterey counties that a bear would have to pass in order to migrate north from Los Padres National Forest.

In addition, historically the region was habitat for grizzly bears, not black bears. The last known grizzly in the Bay Area was killed in the 1880s near Bonny Doon north of Santa Cruz.

In California, black bears are not considered dangerous to people, but rather are expert food raiders, and there has never been a fatal black bear attack documented in the state. More than anything, they are a symbol of the wildness of the land.

To report unusual wildlife activity, phone the DFG's Regional Office at (707) 944-5500.


-- June 2001: In San Bruno, adjacent to Crystal Springs Watershed, a bear is hit and killed by a car on the Peninsula's Skyline Boulevard.

-- June 2001: In Salinas, a bear walks into a Hertz Equipment Rental. It is successfully darted with a tranquilizer and transported to Los Padres National Forest.

-- May 2001: In Carmel, a bear is treed and darted, but falls to its death when it misses a prepared landing area.

-- 2000: At Ford Ord, a bear is tracked from Seaside to an army bunker. It is tranquilized and moved to Los Padres National Forest.

-- 1999: Near Santa Cruz, a bear is verified running across a road by Sheriff's Deputy Larry Roland.

-- 1999: Near Felton in the Santa Cruz Mountains, a glimpse of a bear is reported by Nancy McFarlane. She says she is not certain the animal was a bear,

but in a follow-up search by field scout Rich Coats, he discovers and photographs bear scat near Graham Hill Road.

-- 1999: At Glen Ellen in Sonoma, the arrival of a bear shocks everyone who sees it. It is tranquilized by the DFG and transported to Mendocino National Forest.

-- 1998: In Woodland north of Davis in Yolo County, DFG verifies several sightings of a bear, which then disappears from the area.

-- 1996: In Davis, a bear is seen walking under the Interstate-80 bridge. It is gone before DFG can respond. But two other bear sightings, likely the same animal, are verified by DFG at the Grizzly Island Wildlife Area near Fairfield and near Solano Community College near Cordelia.

-- 1979: At Red Hill Road in Saratoga, a bear is spotted in a tree. One week later it is captured in the same area in a live trap by DFG and transported to Santa Lucia Mountains in Los Padres National Forest.

-- 1962: In Orinda, a bear is hit by a car and killed on Bear Creek Road. At the time, scientists speculated that it walked north through the Diablo Range to the area. However, it was later learned that a hunter had actually returned from the Sierra Nevada with two cubs captured illegally, then released them at San Pablo Dam. The other was never found.

©2001 San Francisco Chronicle

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