Bear run-ins on rise in Calif. mountains, foothills - East Valley Tribune: Nation / World

Bear run-ins on rise in Calif. mountains, foothills

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Posted: Tuesday, June 15, 2010 7:14 am

The dead bear in the back of biologist Kevin Brennan's pickup was a 300-pound, brown-and-red reminder of what happens when wild animals develop a taste for household garbage, dog food and other nutrition sources people unintentionally provide.

California residents in the Pioneertown area northwest of Yucca Valley had been complaining about bear intrusions for about a month. Finally, last week, the bear was shot after it broke into a chain-link kennel and fought with a resident's dog.

Such potentially dangerous encounters with bears are increasing in and near the San Bernardino Mountains as the black bear population grows -- a sevenfold increase statewide in 24 years -- and people continue to move into the foothill areas where they live.

The situation has Brennan, an Idyllwild-based wildlife biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game, responding to more and more bear calls -- now about a dozen a week.

Black bears, which can weigh 400 pounds or more, are lured by easy meals in trash containers and caches of pet food in sheds and garages.

The state's black bear population has jumped from less than 5,000 in 1984 to more than 35,000 in 2008, according to state estimates.

Bear hunting is allowed the San Bernardino National Forest but has not stabilized the population.

Fish and Game officials have proposed increasing the number of bears that can be killed each year from 300 to 2,000 statewide. State officials last month delayed a decision to allow time to review thousands of letters and e-mails from citizens who oppose an expanded bear hunt and the use of high-tech equipment to locate bears treed by hounds.

In recent decades, black bears have significantly moved into new territories up and down the state. They now inhabit the San Jacinto Mountains in Riverside County and farther south into rural San Diego County.

In the same years, more homes have been built in foothill communities such as Yucaipa, on land where bears have foraged for decades.

May was an especially busy month. In the late spring, mother black bears lose their tolerance for yearling cubs and force them to survive on their own. Searching for their own feeding grounds, the young bears often follow creek beds downhill and wind up in neighborhoods in places like Yucaipa.

That's when people get on the phone to Fish and Game. With most bears, Brennan is able to shoo them back into the wild.

Occasionally, a bear that's cornered in a shed or garage can be tranquilized and moved to a safe spot in the forest.

Sometimes, when an animal presents an imminent threat or is injured, Brennan or a game warden kills it with a shotgun slug or rifle bullet.

Recently, a handyman narrowly escaped injury when an unusually aggressive adult bear chased him into a house in Crestline, in the San Bernardino Mountains.

"He got in just in time," Brennan said.

The biologist responded that evening and waited outside the home all night, ready to shoot the bear, but the animal never returned.

A 400-pounder in Cherry Valley wasn't as fortunate. In late April, the bear twice broke into a garage, where it knocked over and raided a refrigerator.

Efforts to chase it outside with bean bags fired from a shotgun weren't successful. A game warden killed it after noticing serious injuries on its leg and head. The bear appeared to have been hit by a car.

It wasn't the outcome fish and game officials had hoped for.

"We always want to avoid killing bears whenever possible," Brennan said. "They are just doing what comes natural to them."

Bear run-ins in Yucaipa, Oak Glen and Forest Falls -- all in the foothills or canyons east of Redlands -- and Pioneertown on the eastern side of the mountains are now commonplace.

People are actually contributing to the surge in the bear population by providing ample food sources.

Brennan said female bears normally have two cubs, but more are having triplets in the Inland area.

Females will mate with several males and then carry more than one embryo, he explained. These embryos won't develop into cubs unless the mother has enough energy stored in the form of fat. The more fat she has, the more embryos that develop.

Since the garbage they eat is high in fat, bear litters are getting bigger, he said.

Bears will travel far and wide for garbage

One bear in 2008 worked its way from trashcan to trashcan from Pioneertown to Yucca Valley and eventually to Twentynine Palms -- a distance of about 32 miles, Brennan said.

Just about every problem with a bear starts when the animal gets access to garbage or food. Keeping it out of reach is best for bears and for people, Brennan said. "Just getting a bear-proof trashcan will do the trick."

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