Wildlife researcher Gerald Braden crept silently across the face of a steep rock outcropping near Mt. Wilson, his breath quickening as his radio receiver emitted an increasingly stronger series of beeps.
He spotted a dark, narrow corridor disappearing into the jumble of granite boulders below him and whispered to a visitor: "Bear heaven! I love this part of my work."
Unseen and protected in a cozy den beneath the rocks, a 450-pound American black bear--fitted with a homing collar by researchers in 1986--had hunkered down for the long winter.
"He's in there, but I don't want to disturb him," Braden said softly. "He could be sleeping, he could be sitting listening to me. I have no idea what he'd do."
Although it comes as a surprise to many city-oriented Southern Californians, here in the remote reaches of the San Gabriel Mountains, amid thick stands of manzanita and oak, a community of about 100 black bears is quietly thriving.
The shy, intelligent animals are descendants of 11 "troublemaker" bears shipped here from Yosemite National Park in 1933. They roam the rugged peaks and canyons just half an hour north of Glendale, ranging across a 150-square-mile area that was ruled by the grizzly bear until the last one was shot in 1912.
The Los Angeles County Fish and Game Commission is funding a $9,000 study to find out how to better manage them. And, because the bears are confined to a mountain range that is surrounded by an ever-expanding human population, scientists are anxious to find out whether they will continue to fare well in the San Gabriels, as a much bigger native population does in Northern California.
Braden, a graduate student in wildlife biology at California State University, San Bernardino, and Glenn Stewart, a professor at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, have for months been trapping and radio-tagging the bears to learn where they go, what they eat and what they may need to survive an uncertain future.
"I think if the world is going to survive as we know it, we've got to understand more about things outside the cities--the animals, the vegetation," Braden said.
"When it comes to bears, we understand so little about their ranges and habitat that we don't know what to protect and what to leave alone."
Only One Den Found
Of eight bears tagged and studied so far, the den of only one has been found. It belongs to Lazarus, a large male named after the biblical character who rose from the dead. Lazarus had not been expected to survive the year because of a crippling leg injury that left him thin and near death in June.
"I was sure Lazarus was dying, but then I spotted him again in August, fat and healthy," Braden said. "What happened in between is a mystery, but he earned his name."
Originally, the researchers captured and tagged six males and two females, but a female and a male have since been legally killed by licensed hunters who claimed that they did not notice the bears were wearing radio collars and ear tags.
One of them, known as Kool Fool, was cornered by hunting dogs four weeks ago and shot to death as it clung, terrified, to a tree.
Kool Fool, a 7-year-old, got his name because his radio signal was often so hard to detect that Braden at one point suspected the bear of "moving so smoothly that we couldn't pick him up."
But on Oct. 18, Braden did pick up the signal, on a radio frequency allotted only to Kool Fool. As he tracked the creature in Upper Big Tujunga Canyon, Braden heard the high-pitched yelping of hunting dogs, then a blast of gunfire.
"It was a horrible thing to experience, and I just really let go when I found the hunters," Braden said. "I was screaming at them, and they were very apologetic, but Kool Fool was dead."
Mysteries Piling Up
In tracking the six collared bears that remain, mysteries about these complex animals are already piling up. Although hibernation usually does not begin for a few more weeks, the researchers have found that the male bears are disappearing from the slopes early, for unknown reasons.
In addition, Braden is not sure how the bears have been finding enough to eat. This year's acorn crop never appeared on the oak trees, leaving the bears to forage for old acorns on the ground, manzanita berries and, occasionally, smaller animals.
During hibernation, the bears eat nothing and expel nothing. Groggy and almost powerless against attack, they live off fat built up during a frenzied food-gathering period in the summer and fall, and recycle their body wastes back into protein and usable water--a process still not unraveled by science.
Stewart said that for the males, hibernation is a solitary time, but for females it is a time of giving birth and nursing a family, usually one or two cubs every few years.