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Fruitful & Multiplying : Officials say the state's bear population is the largest in 10 years. The reason? Poaching is down and Ventura County's avocado orchards are ripe for the picking.

August 11, 1994|PANCHO DOLL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Game warden John Castro was disgusted when he stepped into a bog at the lower Lion Campground in late June and found the decaying carcass of a female bear shot by poachers.

The gall bladder had been removed. So had the teeth and claws.

"The canines looked like they had been snapped off," Castro said. "It was pretty grizzly."

A gallbladder can easily fetch $50,000 in Asia where apothecaries use them to treat human stomach ailments and blood diseases. Teeth and claws are routinely used in jewelry.

A Newbury Park man has been charged in the crime that stands out not only for its wantonness--a 250-pound animal was killed for less than two pounds of parts--but also for its rarity. Officials maintain that poaching has declined sharply and they cite that as one reason the state's bear population is the largest it's been in 10 years, maybe the largest ever.

Officials estimate that as many as 24,000 California black bears inhabit the state, a growing number of them in counties like Ventura, which has lots of bears. Big bears.

The largest black bear killed in North America was shot in the western tributaries of Piru Creek. The year was 1990.

"He was big enough to cover a 4-by-8 piece of plywood," said Loren Nodolf, an offshore oil worker, who shot the record bear during the fall hunting season. "He must have had six inches of fat on him. We estimated he weighed 800 pounds."

Weight doesn't count in record books. Trophy bears are measured by the length and width of their craniums, and in addition to Nodolf's record bear, two other county bears had skulls big enough to be listed in Boone and Crockett Big Game Awards, the book of record for North American game trophies.

GUACAMOLE

The individual size and overall numbers of bears is due, at least in part, to the 82,600 tons of avocados the county produced last year. Biologists report that bears are gorging themselves to obese dimensions on the calorie-rich fruit and reproducing with abandon.

"Yep, there are some exceptionally large bears up there with nice shiny coats," said Morgan Boucke, a local wildlife biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game.

When high daytime temperatures cause avocados in Ojai and Fillmore to fall from the trees, bears from the surrounding Los Padres National Forest amble into orchards at night. By morning, their muzzles appear to be covered with guacamole.

Ernie Acosta, a game warden in Ventura County for 11 years, said irrigated orchards provide bears with a stable water supply and because the trees are pollinated by bees, a hungry bear can, after enjoying an avocado entree, take down an apiary for dessert.

In bear-think, orchards are like fast-food drive-throughs.

Bob Considine is one avocado rancher who doesn't much mind the intrusions. The Ojai grower has 20 acres of avocados surrounded on two sides by the national forest.

Considine said that between 2% and 5% of the fruit normally falls from the tree before it can be harvested, making it unmarketable. That amounts to as much as 10,000 pounds in his grove alone.

"We try not to bother the bears," Considine said. "Lots of ranchers get upset about it, but the loss to me is not more than I would normally have from seasonal drop. We kind of like the idea of having them in the grove."

Ojai grower Roger Essick is another grower who gets along fine with his nocturnal visitors.

"We're right against the national forest," Essick said. "They don't know where the boundary is, so they have a right to hang around. They've broken a few branches over the years, but it's not a problem. We're kind of happy to have them."

Not all ranchers are such gracious hosts. Fish and Game issued five depredation permits last year in Ventura County, which allow people to shoot a bear that's damaging property. None of the ranchers was able to get the larcenous bears in their gun sights.

The fall hunting season is a different story. Each year an average of eight bears are killed--hunters prefer the euphemism "harvested"--in Ventura County, and more than 1,000 bears are taken throughout the state during the season, which runs from October to December.

Simon Oswitch, vice president of Animal Emancipation, a Ventura animal rights group, sees it as a harvest of shame.

"We feel that it's an anachronistic blood sport completely out of place in a society that's already so violent that people are afraid to go out at night," Oswitch said.

Ironically, Oswitch is the sort of person Marsha Vaughan is afraid of. Vaughan may be North America's foremost woman bear hunter. She's too modest to claim the title, but the bear she killed in 1990 above her Ojai home ranked 14th, the highest ranking for a woman hunter.

Fearing reprisals from animal rights activists, she declined to be photographed with her bear, which is displayed in her living room, frozen in mid step as if stalking the television.

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