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from The San Francisco Chronicle
gone, black bears spill into new areas
Critters beginning to explore outlying counties of Bay Area
Monday, June 11, 2001
Michael McCabe, Chronicle Staff Writer
Get used to bears galumphing into town. Recent sightings of black bears in Salinas and Carmel are no fluke, biologists believe. Over the past five years, the animals have rapidly expanded their territory around California, moving from the deeply wooded, mountainous areas into parts of Monterey, Napa and Sonoma counties.
There is even solid evidence that black bears have been exploring the mountainous areas of Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, San Mateo and San Diego counties. (continued below)
They are prospering and spreading, thanks in part to changes in bear- hunting laws and a gradual expansion into territory historically occupied by the now-extinct California grizzly bear.
But as they embark on their rural sprawl and humans continue their urban sprawl, conflict is inevitable, biologists say.
"We probably have nearly twice as many black in the state now than we had in the early 1980s," said Doug Updike, a Fish and Game wildlife biologist and statewide black bear program coordinator. "It's reached the point where we've been forced to redraw the boundary lines for black bear range in California."
In the early 1980s, biologists estimated that there were at least 12,000 black bears in the state's core area, defined as their traditional stomping grounds in the mountainous region of the Sierra and a small portion of the Coastal range far south of San Francisco.
Today, that figure has nearly doubled to 23,000, Updike said. Taking into account the new areas the bears are pushing into, the number is probably closer to 30,000, Updike said.
The expansion will probably continue, Updike said, until the bears reach a natural barrier, something as thickly urban as San Francisco.
While the bear incursion into more populated areas has been gradual over the past 50 years, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that they have been prowling around in, or near, populated areas in greater numbers over the past two to five years, according to bear experts.
In Monterey County, where the locals are more used to human tourists than Big Foot types, noises in the night are no longer dismissed as skunks or cats in heat.
Vincent Colburn could hardly believe what he was seeing last month when a black bear came ambling near his home. Operating on pure adrenaline, the 37- year-old veterinary technician said he grabbed his pocket camera and started shooting.
"He turned around, looked right at me and snorted real loud," Colburn said. "That's when the hair stood up on the back of my neck."
Nonetheless, Colburn, who says he was as excited as the bear was hungry that night of May 18, followed the bear from a garbage bin not far from his house on Highway 68 in rural Salinas and up a hill, until he had shot all 24 pictures in his camera. The bear vanished into the evening twilight.
Colburn's mother, Lorna, 77, who also saw the bear, is still a bit nervous.
"I've lived right here along this road since I was 6 years old, and this is the first bear I've ever seen or heard of," she said.
Either the same bear or a different one revisited the area several times over the next several days, stopping by Dumpsters near the Toro Place Cafe and Blanchard's Wood Sculpture store and yard -- which is populated by artist Steve Blanchard's redwood sculptures of bears -- before dropping by a school and another restaurant. The bear ended up at Laguna Seca racetrack, where it helped itself to some frozen meat left out all night in the media tent, said Terry Palmisano, a senior wildlife biologist for Fish and Game.
Monterey County is still aflutter over all the bear activity, including visits by bears into central Salinas and downtown Carmel in recent weeks. Some locals are convinced more than two bears are involved.
On May 23, a young black bear's adventure through downtown Carmel ended tragically when it fell more than 50 feet out of a tree to its death after being tranquilized by a state game warden.
On June 1, another bear strolled into Salinas, this time climbing over a 10- foot-tall wrought-iron fence and running through a plate glass door at Hertz Equipment Rental to escape police. All ended happily when the young male bear was safely tranquilized inside the building and hauled away. Later that day, he was deposited deep inside Los Padres National Forest.
Two years ago, bears created a ruckus in places like Sand City in Monterey County and Glen Ellen in Sonoma County.
What's going on here?
Contrary to rumors, Fish and Game has not been kidnapping rogue bears from Yosemite and "relocating" them in Monterey County, Palmisano said.
"We do not do that, never, never, never," she said. "This is vicious and unfounded talk. The bears are relocating themselves."
Black bears are expanding mainly because, after eight decades, they are finally taking advantage of the demise of their large and far more aggressive cousin, the California grizzly, biologists say. Grizzlies are extinct in the state; the last reports of a grizzly were in Sequoia National Park in 1924.
Historically, black bears hung out in the state's mountainous regions, while grizzlies made certain they did not invade their own territory in the valleys and lowlands. As black bears have slowly proliferated, they are discovering that the big, bad grizzlies are no longer around to swat them back into the mountains.
In addition, the state has altered the rules governing bear hunting. In 1982, Fish and Game forbade the practice of hunting bears with dogs for training purposes during the nonhunting season, effectively putting less pressure on their population, Updike said.
Fish and Game officials are convinced that the recent bear sightings are not a fluke, largely because they are keeping track of their movements through the use of "can of sardine" monitoring stations scattered about in several counties. In wilderness areas, the monitoring consists of nailing an unopened can of sardines to a post or tree.
"The bear, which of course has a tremendous sense of smell, will smell that sardine can from a very long way off," Updike said. "They tear the can off the post, and chew it until there's nothing left inside it anymore, finally spitting it out like a gum wrapper. We can tell if a black bear has been there by the teeth marks, or the bear's tracks, or by the bear scat."
While there have been no confirmed sightings of bears in Santa Cruz, Santa Clara or San Mateo counties, Updike has no doubt that they are there, or have visited there, and that they are liable to increase. The chewed-up sardine cans, bear tracks and bear scat don't lie.
"I am sure there is a breeding population in Santa Cruz County, although we have no reports yet of cubs spotted," Updike said. "As to whether they are breeding in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, that is more difficult to say.
"All this is part of black bears' natural ability to expand into neighboring good habitat, and they will continue to do that until they reach a natural barrier, until reaching San Francisco probably."
Unless they sniff out a sardine sandwich in Golden Gate Park.
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle
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