Susette looks for ways to use her extensive spiritual, political, and practical experience to benefit people, wildlife, and the environment.
Most humans notice how we're pushing wild animals back into smaller and smaller territories, where they starve to death or run out of room to bear their young. Most of us also don't want to see bears driven extinct, so we're willing to do what we can to help them . . . as long as we don't get hurt in the process or inadvertently encourage them to stay forever. And that's the risk—safe or not safe in our neighborhoods? Can we afford to share with black bears?
Last fall I told my student aide the story of bears a friend had caught on his night camera the week before. We were driving a yellow school van along a narrow, winding road on the way to her place on top of a wooded hill. She was last to be dropped off.
A few months before, I'd noticed three deer on my return to the bus yard, so I asked if she'd seen any more wildlife lately. She told me deer was all she'd ever seen, and they didn't come around often.
My friend, Bruce, who lives a couple of hills over from her, is an apiarist. This means he cultivates bees and collects and sells their honey. To protect his hives and also to see what comes around at night, he's installed an infrared camera in his backyard. He's posted several night videos of bears wandering through, looking for food, and playing in his watering holes.
As my aide and I talked, I rounded a curve and automatically braked when I saw a quick movement on the left. Was it a deer? No, a bear! A small one crouching by the side of the road, clearly about to cross. “Oh look!” I cried as I slowed to a stop.
I opened my window and called soothingly, “Hey you. How're you doin'?” Nose up in the air, the little black bear moved its head side to side, smelling the bus and registering my voice. Forgetting I was in the middle of the road, I struck up a one-sided conversation, happy to be seeing my first wild bear.
In spite of three years living in Africa seeing all kinds of wildlife, and five years living in Oregon where loggers had driven bears away, this was my first ever sighting of bears in the wild. When my aide reminded me a car could drive around the corner and hit us, I reluctantly drove on, curious and amused at the slight shake in her voice.
The Origin of Southern California's Black Bears
Black bears are not native to Southern California—this being historically grizzly territory. Normally, black bears roam more remote, forested areas than grizzlies, but have lost nearly 60% of their territory, due to human encroachment.
In Southern California, grizzlies lived by the coast and in mountain riparian areas (near fishing streams), until hunters and farmers shot them all for preying on their sheep and goats. After grizzlies disappeared, it was 77 years before Southern California saw bears again.
In 1993 the California Fish & Game Commission caught 27 black bears in Yosemite Park in Northern California and transported them down to Big Bear Lake in the San Gabriel Mountains. They anticipated that black bears would both benefit the ecosystem and boost tourism. Because of the lingering reputation of grizzlies, however, owners of tourist lodges were terrified at first and shot the bears illegally to “protect” visitors and food in outdoor refrigerators.
Now about 4,000 black bears live in Central and Southern California, according to the California Department of Fish & Wildlife—all descended from those first 27.
How to Recognize Black Bears—Their Size and Color
American black bears are smaller than grizzlies—four to seven feet long (or tall, if they're standing) and just two to three feet high when on all fours. A typical female weighs around 300 pounds, a typical male around 500 pounds when food is readily available.
The coat of a black bear is shaggy and thick, usually colored black but also dark brown, cinnamon, or yellow-brown, sometimes with white markings. (Spirit Bears are a subspecies of black bear that is creamy white, and lives along the Canadian coast of British Columbia.)
Black bears have strong powerful legs with large paws, and are expert tree climbers and fast runners—they can run up to 35 miles per hour. Normally they live fairly aloof from humans.
Activity and Diet of Black Bears in the Wild
Black bears live up to 30 years in the wild, mostly in remote conifer forests in the mountains. Just before sunrise, they leave their dens to go foraging all day, taking a nap or two in the process. An hour or two after sunset they bed down for the night.
Black bears have a good memory and excellent sense of smell that help them find food and assess the mood of any predator they come across. Occasionally they will eat fish, small mammals, insects, and carrion. But 95% of their diet is plant-based, wild vegetation that includes herbs, grasses, roots, buds, shoots, honey, nuts, fruit, berries, and seeds.
Every fall, bears go on a marathon forage binge, storing up fat for hibernating during the freezing winter. In winter they go to sleep—in dens built in dark, safe areas like caves, culverts, or cavities dug from the undersides of downed logs—and don't wake up until spring.
Bears benefit nature, in the process of daily living, in three main ways: by spreading seeds far and wide via their feces, by opening up forest canopies so sunlight can reach the ground, and by helping to kickstart the decomposition of old trees, as they tear them apart to find grubs. Their only predators are mountain lions, wolves, brown bears, and humans.
To find out more about what bears eat and how they behave in the wild, check out this U.S. Forest Service brochure.
Encroaching on the Territory of Humans
Since black bears are the relative newcomers in Southern California, humans cannot be said to have encroached on their territory, as usually happens in other regions.
When times get tough in the mountains though—during droughts and wildfires—black bears will move into human territory, if it's the only way they can find food and shelter. Then they forage at night. Because they are normally wary of humans, as soon as they can they return to a place in the mountains that's safer.
The Legality of Hunting Bears
In residential areas, hunting bears is illegal. If bears need to be removed, the Department of Fish & Wildlife will do it using noisemakers, flashbangs and, if necessary, stun guns followed by transporting them back into the wild.
There's a myth that says hunting means fewer bears bothering humans but, in reality, hunters go into the wilderness to take out bears, which are not the same bears that find easy pickings among humans.
There's another myth that hunting bears is a way to keep their numbers down, but that's not true either. Bears are self-regulating producers. When hunters take out a bear, it leaves more food available, which allows females to have more cubs.
Bear hunting season is only three months out of the year. You have to purchase a license, cannot use dogs, and can only shoot one bear per season. Cubs and mothers with cubs are illegal. For more information, check out California's Big Game Hunting Digest.
The Need to Share Territory
California's most recent drought, and now the wildfires, have driven coyotes, mountain lions, bobcats, and bears down into foothill neighborhoods. Because these conditions are so often caused or exacerbated by humans, we need to learn to share territory with bears and other wildlife that have lost theirs.
Black bears don't bring disease and they don't normally attack animals. They're just desperate for food and water, so I believe we can and should do what we can to help during tough times.
Black Bears in Foothill Communities
Where I live in Southern California, bears visit neighborhoods like Tujunga, La Crescenta, Altadena, East Pasadena, Sierra Madre, Arcadia, and Monrovia—all the foothill communities up and down the San Gabriel Mountains. I've seen photos and videos of them, and Next Door apps report bear sightings every week.
I first became aware of bears in Altadena when I woke up one morning to see garbage on the ground and our garbage can tipped over. Annoyed, I stood the can up, picked up the trash, then discussed it with my landlady in the front house.
A week or so later, I was getting ready for bed when the phone rang. I stalked over to my landline and saw that it was my landlady. Worried about an emergency, I picked it up and asked, “Are you ok? It's 11:00 at night!”
“I know,” she replied, “but I think you'll want to hear this.” She told me there was a bear in our yard. It had just foraged in the trash can, pooped under the grapefruit tree, then ambled up the drive to lie down under the Monterey pine, not 15 feet from my front door.
I hung up and rushed to the window. I could see a black blob . . . I thought . . . but I wanted to make sure. I raced to the back patio door and slipped outside, tiptoed across the grass, then laughed to myself, knowing full well the bear could hear every sound. I peeked around the corner and, sure enough, she was lying there, head up, staring straight at me.
“Oh hi,” I said, “just wanted to make sure you were real.” Then I slipped back inside the house, logged onto Facebook to tell everyone, and went to bed laughing.
The next day we talked about how to prevent bears from rooting through our trash. I guessed they could smell the garbage, so it should work for her to rinse off all food and food wrappings before tossing it into the trash—which I was already doing for insect control. She did and it worked.
How Humans Can Help Black Bears
Because black bears don't normally like being around humans, they either have to be starving in order to come down, or they're sick or wounded and have found easy food where human's live—like pet food on back porches.
Officials normally recommend that you not feed bears or let them get too comfortable around your house, partly because they go crazy for food in fall—eating an average of 20,000 calories per day. But that doesn't apply in the southwestern U.S, where winters are mild and food is available year-round.
How can we provide for them when there's nothing in the mountains? And how can we do it without endangering ourselves?
In my mind, there is something to be said for cultivating the hills above a community to provide an alternate source of food and shelter for bears. Since they like to shelter and raise their young in cave-like spaces, culverts and downed trees could be installed in the hills.
A wildlife community group could plant (and cultivate) trees, berry bushes, open hives, and other food sources in the foothills. Eventually, it would become a great place for humans to hike too.
Because bears establish territories, if a few black bears were to claim that land, they would prevent more bears from coming through to the human habitation, thereby becoming protectors for foothill neighborhoods. Humans could continue to live their noisy lives beneath the bears' quiet sanctuary, and bears would still have the upper mountains to retreat to when the foothills get too noisy or hot and food is available there again.
Such an endeavor would be time-consuming and expensive (at first), would prevent humans from spreading further (probably a good thing), and would cost a lot to water the plants until they're established. A cheaper, but less effective, alternative might be to:
- Set up a neighborhood park to support wildlife when times are tough. Include food and water (no shelter), and a safe pathway between the mountains and the park.
- Plant the city parkways up each street with bear-friendly trees. Make it harder for bears to enter people's yards.
- Block off all culverts and ravines running through the town. Even with food and water available in the neighborhood, bears should go back to the hills to find shelter.
Bear Interactions, Danger, and Safety
The last question remaining is how can humans keep themselves safe from attacks by bears if it's illegal to shoot them? Sometimes bear “attacks” are actually provoked by humans, without realizing it, so learning to understand bears and the signals they give off would be a good start. Here's how they react to each other:
- Coming face to face they stop and check each other out—looking, smelling (from a distance), listening. They have grunts and snuffles that tell each other why they're there.
- If one bear feels threatened, it will rear up and bluff, then walk away.
- A black bear will fight only if it sees no other choice—either to protect itself or its cubs. If dogs attack, it will fight.
Many Native American tribes have seen bears as human counterparts in the animal kingdom. Could it be that bears “see” us that way too—as a different type of bear? If so, it would make sense for humans to adopt a few of their signals in areas where bears are anticipated.
Here are a few things a person could do when a bear is approaching. You could prepare ahead by watching videos and practicing moves with the kids:
- If you round a corner and find a bear there, back off and stand your ground. That will tell the bear you don't intend to hurt it, but you're not going to run scared either. If the bear makes a clicking sound with its jaw, that means you're still too close.
- Face off with the bear. Expand the space you take up—open and spread your coat or sweater, widen, and solidify your stance. Huff noisily (repeated noisy breaths out).
- Wait a bit, then talk to it with a friendly voice, “Hey dude, what's up?”
- If it comes closer and you don't want it to, give a warning growl. It may test you—bear comes closer (you growl), bear steps back (you talk friendly).
- If it keeps coming closer yet, command the bear in a strong voice, “Hey! You go!” and point away. In 95% of the cases, they'll amble off.
- The next step is throwing things, then pepper or bear spray, but those shouldn't be needed.
I did see a video recently where a bear curiously approached a female hiker to smell her hair. She faced him and stood still, letting him sniff. Then he went away a few yards and came back, again to sniff.
Before I thought it through, I figured this girl must have used a shampoo he liked, but then he sniffed other places—her neck, underarms, behind the knees—and it began to look like it was her perfume. When he cuffed her, I realized that was a play cuff—the kind of invitation dogs and cats give.
Paying attention to what bears are saying with their actions is important. This bear was saying he does not want to fight for dominance or a mate, but sees himself as of similar social rank, by which bears share elaborate greetings of rubbing and sniffing like he is doing. He's curious. Wants to know more. (BTW "orzo" in Spanish means "bear.")
How to Deter Bears
If you don't want bears around at all, then don't provide for them, even accidentally:
- Move your trash cans inside the garage or gate and close it at night.
- Keep your barbecue grill free of drippings (i.e. clean it).
- Feed your pets inside the house when bears are around, not outside.
- If you have bird feeders, set them up away from your house.
- Cover or lock up anything that smells interesting.
- If you have an outdoor refrigerator, make sure all the seals are tight and the door can't be opened.
- Block the crawl space under the house, so bears can't use it as a shelter.
- Ask the county to fasten big metal screens over each end of big culverts nearby.
- And if you go hiking, don't wear perfume.
If a bear comes around anyway, look to see what drew it and eliminate that. For me, it was the trash. For my neighbor, it was the food she was putting out for the coyotes. The Department of Fish & Wildlife has several suggestions for bear-proofing your home or campsite.
Note: These steps should keep bears away from your house, but they will not do anything to help bears through tough times.
How to Handle "Nuisance" Bears
Those bears it's important to be most cautious about are those that have a reputation for causing problems. They're usually young males just entering their prime or females with young cubs. These bears need to be reported to the authorities, who will trap or tranquilize them, then carry them back to the hills to a place that makes it difficult for them to return.
When reporting a nuisance bear, there are several key questions to which the authorities need answers, so most state Departments of Fish & Wildlife provide an online form to fill out. California's is here.
If a bear is actively attacking someone, do what you do with any other emergency and call 911. The following video shows how removal is carried out.
I know “my” bear is still around. Last week my trash can was tipped over again, although it's been awhile, and every once in awhile I see bear scat on the road.
This month the Bobcat Fire, just over the ridge from my neighborhood, burned over 115,000 acres in the mountains, from one side to the other. I'm expecting more bear sightings and am putting water out for them, and throwing out leftover salad and vegetable material, in case they need it—which I know is not recommended, but it's also temporary. For a sympathetic, practical look at bears check out the Bear Smart Society. They have lots of good advice.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Sustainable Sue (author) from Altadena CA, USA on October 15, 2020:
Bird feeders and berry patches both. Awesome, Mary!
Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on October 15, 2020:
We have bears in the area around our cottage so I have seen them several times. One summer, they prowled around for food as they did not have enough in the forests around. They went to our bird feeders. Since we changed our garbage to a strong metal one, we never had problems with bears. We usually leave the berry patches around for them.
Sustainable Sue (author) from Altadena CA, USA on October 13, 2020:
Thanks Mr. Happy. I love your comments and your articles (yes, I've read some, as you know). May Wakan Tanka be with you too.
Mr. Happy from Toronto, Canada on October 13, 2020:
"who lives a couple of hills over from her" - "a couple of hills over", haha!! That's awesome! That's how I like my directions: head down the road, make a right after the second bridge and head straight until You see the big oak on your left ...". I prefer this rather than listening to road names which I will never remember.
"Because of the reputation of grizzlies, however, owners of tourist lodges were still terrified at first" - Grizzlies are just big brown bears. I do not find them scarier than black bears. Yes, they are bigger but they are still just as scared of humans. We are not on the bear menu so, unless we startle them, or approach the cubs, it's all good. (We are on the polar bear menu, so that's the only kind of bear that I would be truly concerned about.)
"In the process of daily living, black bears benefit nature by spreading seeds far and wide via their feces" - This will certainly gross some people out but the black bear's digestive system is not that efficient. One can find full berries in a bear's scat. (I speak from experience here lol) Thus, it can be food if starvation is on the horizon and that is all one finds.
"I believe we can and should do what we can to help during tough times" - I am with You 100%.
"Where I live in Southern California, bears visit neighborhoods like Tujunga, La Crescenta, Altadena, East Pasadena, Sierra Madre, Arcadia and Monrovia" - I saw a big brown bear walking through a neighborhood in Monrovia this summer. He looked really old, tired and somewhat confused. I hear he was taken back to the forest, which I was and am grateful for.
"In my mind, there is something to be said for cultivating the hills above a community to provide an alternate source of food and shelter for bears" - That is an awesome idea!!
"Such an endeavor would be time consuming and expensive" - Start a gofundme page. I'll pitch in. Planting raspberry bushes, or blackberries would work great because they will spread on their own.
"don't go to sleep in your yard, when you know there are bears around" - My sister fell asleep on the beach at Killbear Provincial Park, here in Ontario, only to wake-up with a black bear sniffing her head LOL She lived. Haha!!
I once forgot to wash my pan from breakfast and left it on the floor of the car. I woke-up in my tent (next to the car) in the middle of the night, with a bear sniffing around my tent. He tried to get in the car but he couldn't so, he moved on but ya, do not leave any food, any smell of food, food wrapping, or anything like that. They love everything we eat, including chips, chocolate bars, fruits, etc.
Ohha ya, that's the bear I saw in your last clip, from Monrovia! Until I saw the video, I did not know bears come that close to people's homes in California.
"throwing out leftover salad and vegetable material, in case they need it" - I leave left-overs in the forest too but I do a good walk away from where I am camping and then I put the food down. I always go and check in the morning and am always happy to see that the food is gone. As long as my animal cousins are eating, I am happy.
I love your article and thank You so very much for writing it. Here in Ontario, the Ojibwe First Nations call bears: Makwa and they are in their view (and mine) the protectors of the Forest.
Thanks again. May Wakan Tanka guide your path.