As plenty of folks around here know, I studied black bears for many years in Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia national parks, and this fall has been one for the record books when it comes to ursine visitors to Three Rivers.
I’ve gotten loads of questions. Some get asked repeatedly, so I thought I might try to answer them here.
Is this a one-time event?
I’ve lived here 35 years, and in that time bears in some numbers have shown up in Three Rivers at least a half-dozen times. However, this year takes the cake in terms of sheer numbers.
Why are the bears here?
Most black bears in the Sierra Nevada spend their summers in the mixed-conifer/black oak zone where — in most years — they can dine on manzanita berries, elderberries, other fruits, carpenter ants they tear out of logs, yellow jackets they dig out of the ground, the occasional newborn fawn, and carrion.
In the fall, the most important food is the acorns of black oaks, which are highly nutritious. When these foods are plentiful, an adult black bear can increase its weight between June and December by 50 percent!
A bear needs that fat store to carry it through winter hibernation, which generally takes place above snowline in the base of a fat fir snag, or sometimes a rocky cave in the talus.
This year, with the continuing drought, berries were scarce and the black oaks bore poor acorn crops. As a result, thin, hungry bears began to come down into the blue oak zone as early as August in search of alternative foods.
Most blue oaks also had poor acorn crops this year, but some — especially those getting some irrigation — did produce acorns, although they are less nutritious than the black oak acorns. The oaks and some garden crops drew them in, but once here they have discovered all sorts of anthropogenic (human-sourced) foods in garbage cans, on porches, in sheds, in chicken coops.
Gaining enough weight to survive winter is a matter of life or death to bears. Bears that don’t have enough fat to carry them through hibernation will continue to forage until they gain enough weight… or more likely, starve.
Typically, our bears go into their dens at the end of December and re-emerge in mid-April.
What happens next?
The bears I see on my ambles around Three Rivers recently are generally looking reasonably chubby. If past years are reasonable predictors, before long most of the bears will begin to drift back up the mountain to find a den.
However, bears are highly intelligent and pretty individualistic. Underweight ones are likely to continue to search for food around the village, and others may find dens in the foothills rather than hiking all the way back to the mixed-conifer belt.
The bears may be a nuisance right now, but they may also be desperate.
How dangerous are these bears?
There are zero records of people being killed by black bears in California, and fatal attacks are rare elsewhere. Almost all injuries occur when bears and people are in close proximity, such as in campgrounds where bears are looking for food and are startled; they display defensive aggression, which can be a slap or bite and then they flee.
More commonly, a bear that feels threatened can make an impressive “bluff charge” at a person, coming very close at high speed and huffing. This is designed to get the person charged to back off. I’ve been charged more than a hundred times and come away without a scratch.
However, once a bear is in possession of food, it’s a dangerous idea to harass it. Back off slowly.
Some bears can become quite adept at breaking into chicken coops and eating the inhabitants. Attacks on other livestock and pets are rare, although when cougars or coyotes kill livestock, it’s not uncommon for a bear to take possession of the kill (and then get the blame).
Why doesn’t the park take responsibility for its bears?
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are exclusive federal reservations and have sole jurisdiction over wildlife inside park boundaries. However, once a wild animal leaves the park, it falls under the jurisdiction of the State of California and for the most part is managed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
This is true even on national forest and BLM lands. With the exception of endangered species, migratory birds, and anadromous fish, the Feds have no authority outside the national parks.
So even if you see a bear in the village sporting an ear tag or radio collar, it doesn’t “belong to the park” until it returns there.
I feel quite lucky to be living with bears; it’s not an experience most folks get to enjoy. I urge patience, tolerance, and careful driving!