What the bear experts say

Bears congregate at the irrigated blue oak trees in a Three Rivers yard. (David Stein photo, 2015)

As humans continue to move into bear country to live, recreate and work, bears have fewer and fewer places to go unnoticed. Global climate change also affects natural food production, often droughts cause food failures. Bears come into town where other sources of food exist or where berry and nut trees are irrigated.

—Sylvia Dolson, executive director, Get Bear Smart Society, Whistler, BC, Canada

Why are they here? Most black bears in the Sierra Nevada spend their summers in the mixed-conifer/black oak zone where they can dine on manzanita berries, elderberries, other fruits, carpenter ants they tear our 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%! It 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.

If berries are scarce and the black oaks have poor acorn crops, hungry bears will come down into the blue oak zone [Three Rivers] as early as August in search of alternative foods. The oaks and some garden crops draw them in, but once here they discover 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.

Dave Graber, Ph.D., National Park Service, Chief Scientist, Pacific West Region, retired

How dangerous are 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.

From the Three Rivers Rants and Raves page, Facebook

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).

Dave Graber, Ph.D., National Park Service, Chief Scientist, Pacific West Region, retired

One thought on “What the bear experts say

  • February 11, 2020 at 10:21 pm

    Thanks for continuing to promote bear awareness. Nice pictures, too.


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