Being bear smart in Three Rivers


After the shooting deaths of four bears in Three Rivers in 2014 — a mother and two cubs in July; an adult male in November — as a result of the bears being assigned “depredation status” by California Department of Fish and Wildlife, some Three Rivers residents have become determined to avoid this scenario in the future. 

Coexisting with bears in 3R

One proactive husband-and-wife team is on a mission to bearproof  Three Rivers garbage cans. All anyone has to do is set up an appointment via email (, pay $20 for the materials, and the can will be retrofitted to withstand a hungry bear.

Another Three Rivers resident is working on how to build a better chicken coop. It’s how they can have their birds and the bears too.

Then there is the Three Rivers resident who witnessed a bear raiding an acorn stash in an abandoned cabin and seemingly settling in for a long winter’s nap. The landowner requested advice on how best to move the bear out and received it expediently.

“If there’s a giant stash of acorns — stashed by wood rats, perhaps — the bear will eat what’s edible and move on,” said David Graber of Three Rivers, retired chief scientist of the Pacific West Region of the National Park Service. “[The bear] needs to continue finding food… Since black bears aren’t particularly dangerous, I’d tell them to ignore the bear and make sure it can’t get into their garbage. It’ll move on.”

This sampling of experiences proves that it is possible for humans and black bears to coexist. But it’s up to the humans to be smarter than the bears, which can be a challenge at times as bears are quite intelligent.

Where bears live

Remember, the bears can’t pack up and relocate somewhere else. Their habitat is diminishing while ours is expanding.

While bears would be happy grazing the acorn crops on the valley floor, this is no longer an option. Most of the oaks are gone, and cities and agriculture have taken over the land.

Besides these foothills that interface with public lands, the bears have nowhere else to live. Their habitat is fragmented and isolated.

Neighboring Sequoia National Park provides a refuge for black bears and a decent swath of forest for them to inhabit. But the park is also a haven for another animal: the human being who may otherwise never have been around an animal that’s just a notch or so below them on the food chain.

Encountering a bear for these tourists can be both the thrill of a lifetime and a scary experience. And just one innocent mistake by any of these hundreds of thousands of visitors, such as the potato chip bag being left on the picnic table overnight, and a bear just went from being wild to human-habituated.

Since bears don’t rely on 7.5-minute topo maps, have the latest GPS app on a cell phone, and can’t read trail signs, they don’t know when they cross the park boundary. Once beyond this invisible line, they leave the refuge of the national park where they were a star attraction to being considered a nuisance that’s up to no good when encountered on private property.

A bear-smart community

It’s all about eliminating the temptations. Some are more obvious than others. For instance, if there are fruit trees or berry bushes in the garden, bears may want to help themselves to the bounty.

Caged birds will also be an attractant. They are an easy meal.

Beehives are hard for a bear to pass by. Even with the harshest of deterrents, a bear may not be able to resist the temptation of honey.

In the wild, bears eat mostly plant matter. But they will eat insects, fish, and rodents if the opportunity arises. Bears don’t hunt the way a mountain lion or coyote does, so they won’t eat your dogs and cats. They are more opportunistic.

If there are meat scraps in an unprotected garbage can, a barbecue grill with the scent of salmon, or even steaks in a freezer in the garage, the bear is going to follow the scent.

A bird feeder full of nuts and seeds is also an attractant to a bear looking for calories. A hummingbird feeder with sugar water could also prove too good  of a treat to pass up.

Allowing bears to have access to garbage cans also cause them great harm besides the obvious habit of wanting more garbage. They can receive cuts in their mouths and on their tongues from broken glass or the lid of a can, and a container can get stuck on their tongues, in their mouths, and on their heads. Since garbage cans are usually close to roadways, garbage-habituated bears are often killed by vehicles.

To truly deter bears from eating the produce in your garden, attacking a defenseless flock of cooped-up chickens, or getting into the backyard beehives, electricity seems to be the best method. A one-time investment of money and time, an electric fence with a couple joules of juice could teach a bear (and raccoons and deer) with just one zap on the nose that sustenance would be more easily obtained elsewhere.

Other tips to reduce a human-bear interaction is to harvest fruit off trees as soon as it is ripe; use a bear-proof garbage container; don’t leave groceries, trash, or animal feed in a car; clean grills after use, and don’t put trash out or unlock the bearproof latches until the morning of collection day.

Effects of drought

And, finally, with the drought showing no signs of relenting this season, the looming summer will be even more dry than last season. Any tributaries to the Kaweah River will go dry early, leaving animals with but one water source, the river itself. 

Less water also means less food sources, so bears and other wildlife will be scrounging for whatever is edible. Because bears will return if they find an easy meal, it is more prudent to be proactive rather than reactive.

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