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An example of a young bear in Plumas County. This photo was taken off Chandler Road in Quincy a couple of years

Living with bears: Learning about our four-footed neighbors

While it might seem like a good thing to raise a bear cub, think again, is Lt. Kyle Kroll’s cautioning statement. Someone tried that with this cub. It’s not legal. The bear had to be rehabilitated to his rightful home in the wild. Photos courtesy Fish and Wildlife.

There’s a bear in the backyard! Or there’s one in the fruit tree, on the porch or in the garbage.

These are routine calls that come into the Plumas County Sheriff’s Office dispatch center. They’re also common reports to the Northern Division of the Fish and Wildlife Department, which covers Lassen, Plumas and central Butte counties.

There have also been reports of a Quincy man who routinely drives home a pickup load of food for the bears.

More bears are arriving in the general neighborhood and crossing the roadway posing a danger to both bears and humans.

Lt. Kyle Kroll is all too familiar with bears and the people who report them.

In charge of six to seven game wardens in the Northern Area Department of Fish and  Wildlife, Kroll has come to know a lot local black bears.

About black bears

Black bears are only found in North America. They range through much of Canada, and in parts of the interior of Mexico. They’re found in California and along the West Coast, in the Rocky Mountains, in a few regions of the Southwest and Southeast, and in parts of Florida and in a few other areas.

According to Kroll, black bears often are not black. They range in colors from brown, golden, occasionally white, to blue-black and blue-gray.

Despite their appearance — little eyes and rounded ears — black bears are smart and learn quickly, Kroll said. “They’re so stinking smart,” he said from experience. And they’re very adaptable.

Their size and ponderous appearance allow people to believe they’re slow and clumsy. According to some experts they can run up to 40 mph.

Bears have a very keen sense of smell (as much as seven times greater than a dog) and can tell a lot about what’s going on by smell, especially when they’re looking for food — which is almost continual.

While much of the black bear’s diet includes vegetation — berries, roots and shoots and other things that grow in and around the forest, it includes carrion in its diet. That is food left by other animals and dead animals.

Black bears are known locally to kill the occasional fawn to eat, Kroll said. And it will kill chickens, ducks and other fowl if it’s tempted.

It also eats grubs, insects and loves honey. Black bears have been known to tear apart an entire tree to get at the honey.

Black bears will also eat many things it shouldn’t, such as trash.

Bears’ diners

Garbage has become a number one non-natural place for bears to find food. Dumps, cans, bins, illegal marijuana cultivation sites in the forests, in short anywhere a bear can find the smell of food to check out becomes a place to dine. “Garbage is the number one food attraction,” Kroll said on the topic, and the number one draw to residences and neighborhoods.

Bears like chicken for dinner or any time they can get it. This bear was caught in the act of ripping apart the door to a seemingly sturdy coop. Bears are strong and can inflict a lot of damage when they’re after something.

Most people learn not to set their garbage cans outside the night prior to trash collection.Many have learned to put their can inside the garage or another controlled location where bears won’t be tempted.

For those who don’t have regular garbage service, some learn that keeping trash bags in unsecured places — like the back of the seldom used pickup — is a big mess just waiting to happen.

According to official logs from the Plumas County Sheriff’s dispatch center, unsecured garbage, bears and neighbors don’t mix well.

While neighbors are known to lose their tempers, it’s the bears that lose their lives if they can’t be moved to a new location or encouraged not to return to a tempting site.

Kroll said game wardens often use a technique called hazing to convince bears to relocate.

A haze is a little rubber pellet that makes a loud bang when the hazing gun is fired. Not only does the noise scare the bear, the sharp thump to its rump or haunches is intended to give it a message that it’s not wanted in a particular area.

Hazing reminds black bears to fear humans, an instinct the bear has obviously lost as it feeds at unnatural or human caused food sources.

Wardens try to “nip it in the bud” through education, Kroll said.

The Chandler bear

Last year when some residents along Quincy’s Chandler Road area adopted a young bear it meant a sad ending, according to Kroll.

Apparently the bear was motherless too young and residents felt sorry for it. They began leaving food for it usually in the Oakland Camp area and it lost its fear of humans.

Eventually the bear was treed for some reason and as passersby watched, it fell out of the tree. Kroll said the bear badly injured its back in the fall and had to be put down.

Feeding bears is actually against the law, according to Kroll. It is a misdemeanor and can be punishable with up to a $1,000 fine and up to a year in jail. Although those circumstances are rare, laws can be upheld.

Kroll said they encourage people to pick up their garbage and not store it where it’s accessible to bears.

They encourage those with chickens, ducks and other farm animals to install hot wire fences. These give bears and other animals a jolt of electricity that discourages them from entering the pen.

All about the food

Whether it’s in the wild or in adopted habitats, bears are about food. As fall approaches and hibernation is nearing, they eat up to 20 hours a day, according to the Western Wildlife Outreach specialists.

In preparing for their winter sleep, bears try to take on an additional 35 percent body weight.

This bear cub was captured and was going to be rehabilitated and then returned to the wild someplace far away from the usual human use areas.

This phase is known as hyperphagia, meaning excessive eating. “Black bears move in response to the seasonal availability of food and have excellent memories, particularly regarding food sources. Bears are able to learn about food types and locations, and reapply that knowledge over time and space — a sure sign of intelligence,” according to Western Wildlife Outreach.

Actually, black bears are not true hibernators. Although they might sleep more and become less active in the cold winter months, they’re still apt to be out and about, according to information from American Expedition.

Male black bears can have a territory of 15 to 80 square-miles, according to “American Black Bear,” by National Geographic. But it can be smaller than that if it’s getting enough food and remains unchallenged. They tend to pick out an area and mark it with claw marks on trees to show dominance to other bears.

Are black bears dangerous?

Black bears aren’t typically dangerous to humans. They tend to be shy and are seldom aggressive toward humans.

With that said, be aware that mama bears are very protective of their cubs. When a female has cubs to rear, people are encouraged to be aware.

Cubs are born in January and sometimes February after the female bear has carried them for a gestation period of seven months.

At birth, they’re tiny — weighing less than a pound — are blind and have little of the thick layers of fur they will grow to keep them warm.

The cubs tend to remain in the den until they’re about 2 or 3 months old.

At this time the mothers are hungry. They’ve spent the last few months generally awake tending to every need of their cubs. The nursing babies, usually one to three of them, but larger numbers are on record, have taken 15 to 25 percent of the mother’s weight. But even when foraging for food, the mother’s acute hearing — far more sensitive than a human’s — will be tuned in to even the faintest cry of one her cubs.

Mother bears will continue to nurse their cubs until their chewing teeth come in later in the spring, according to “Bear With Us,” a black bear information and protection program. While continuing to nurse her young, the mother bear is bent on consuming enormous calories every day. And once their teeth come in the cubs will start learning what’s good to eat.

Showing a photograph of a mother bear and her two cubs, Kroll said this black bear was busy peeling back the bark of a large pine tree. Once she had exposed a source of grubs or insects, she would encourage her cubs to eat them.

In the fall the mother will show the cubs how to construct a den. These might be made in a tangle of downed trees, dense brush, in an existing hollowed tree or even in the pine needles in someone’s backyard.

Kroll showed another photo of a large pile of dry pine needles a bear had recently left. Bears tend to brush back all of the needles, leaves and other natural debris leaving the ground exposed. On top and around the sides pine needles provided some protection from the elements.

Understanding this can help humans avoid areas where mother bears and their cubs might be found.

Lt. Kyle Kroll wasn’t sure where this happened, but scenes like this are all too common in homes and cabins throughout the area. Bears don’t know they’re invading someone’s property, they’re just doing what they’re programmed to do — find food.

Showing a photo of a black bear cub in a wire cage, Kroll said this was one that was rehabilitated. Sometimes cubs are separated from their mothers for various reasons. One method of rehabilitating the cub is to send it to the Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care program, where trained specialists attempt to keep an animal’s wild instincts active. Once a cub is ready to return to the wild and fend for itself, it can be released.

Kroll said that one cub was taken to an area near Butt Lake Dam. They dug a snow cave for it and encouraged a natural hibernation through the rest of winter. The plan was for it to return to a fully wild state when it awoke.

When bears are relocated, they’re given a radio transmitter or at least an ear tag so wardens can keep track of the bear and log their success rate.

When observing black bears, people are reminded that bears will stand on their back feet, bare their teeth and growl in an effort to scare off someone. It won’t attack in this position however. An attack is done on all fours.

But seeing a bear in this position doesn’t always mean it’s on the alert. It could simply mean that it’s standing to better sniff the air for scents of food or other animals.

Black bears rarely attack humans, Kroll explained. A bear did attack a person about 10 years ago in Sierra County. Apparently, the person had wounded the bear and it attacked the individual, he said.

Black bears are a protected species, Kroll said. Although their numbers are rebounding, their habitat is threatened according to Defenders of Wildlife.

The public is encouraged to use common sense about black bears. Just because a bear is on the porch or in the backyard doesn’t mean it’s a threat.

About black bears

Common name: American black bear

Scientific name: Urdus Americans

Type: Mammal

Diet: Omnivores — Meaning they eat meat, chicken and fish, fruits, vegetables, insects, grasses and roots.

Average life span in the wild: 20 years

Size: 5 to 6 feet long

Weight: 200 to 600 pounds

Population trend: Increasing.

Currently there are up to 50,000 in California; and 600,000 to 700,000 adult bears in U.S. and Canada.

Illegal marijuana grows found in various places on the Plumas National Forest are prime targets for bears. Because people generally live in the areas of the grows to tend the crops they create garbage that attract bears. Unfortunately, the growers also have pesticides and harmful fertilizers that can also prove attractive to bears as they scrounge through sites for food.
What to do about bears

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has a lot of tips for people living in or visiting black bear country. If in the home:

– Do not approach the bear.

– Remove yourself from danger.

– When safe, call 911.

– Do not block any exits that the bear might need to escape.

If in the yard:

– Slowly back away. Do not approach the bear.

– Allow the bear plenty of room to pass or withdraw.

– Once you are a safe distance away, encourage the bear to leave by banging on pots and pans or making other loud noises.

When to call Fish and Wildlife

– It’s not uncommon to see bears in and around communities located near bear habitat. A bear sighting alone is not a cause for concern.

– If a bear causes damage to home or property, then call. The number for the Northern Region that includes Plumas and Lassen counties is 225-2300 or call the Plumas County Sheriff’s Office at 283-6300 and they will either handle the call or provide a number for fish and wildlife.

– CDFW will provide strategies for making property less attractive to bears. They will also explain how to obtain a depredation permit and explain the process. Possibly a game warden will assist.

– Remember, prevention is always the first step. It’s up to all of us to help keep bears alive and wild for generations to come.

A fed bear is a dead bear

Despite good intentions, assisting black bears when natural food sources are scarce or providing food in order to attract bears for entertainment purposes, including photographing or making videos, is never a good idea.

Once bears are conditioned to human food sources, it creates conflicts, according to information from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Attracting bears increases the risk of a vehicle collision with a bear. This can increase the likely hood of injuries to the bear and humans.

“The bear’s behavior will not stop voluntarily, and unless the nuisance behavior can be corrected, bears may be killed to ensure public safety,” according to CDFW resources. Check with them before attempting to shoot a bear. “In order to avoid these deaths, food sources must be removed.”

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