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California and the West

As Civilization Spreads Out, More Californians Are Loaded for Bear

Nature: With the wild population soaring, the state issued a record number of permits in 1998 to kill problem animals. Some activists urge nonlethal alternatives.

May 28, 1999|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

McCLOUD, Calif. — Up here in the north woods, the run-ins start with the first scents of spring. Bears wake up, shake off the snow and follow their noses to food. Invariably, some get crossways with people, and pay dearly.

Nate McLaughlin shot a bear as it attacked the pigs at his homestead in the Klamath National Forest. Over in the Del Norte County redwoods, a bear tore the doors off the Yurok tribal office, and got taken out a few days later for its indiscretion.

Then there was the midnight prowler at Joe Marcantonio's place in the north Sierra town of Downieville. Marcantonio flicked on the kitchen light to find himself nose-to-muzzle with a hulking male reared on its haunches, ears practically grazing the ceiling. The bear fled, but returned a few nights later to grab a 20-pound bag of cat food. Marcantonio shot him dead.

As never before, black bears in California are colliding with humankind, and the results are increasingly deadly for the beasts. Last year, state wildlife officials handed out a record 327 permits entitling homeowners to legally kill problem bears--those that have plundered property or posed an overt threat to humans. The outcome was the death of 151 bears, up from 65 killed a year earlier and just 14 back in 1983.

Oddly enough, the deaths are a byproduct of a wilderness success story. Their numbers once slipping, black bears have rebounded in recent decades and are now thriving, from North Coast forests to mountain ranges in Southern California. That population explosion, combined with the steady spread of civilization into the woods, has led to a sharp rise in conflicts.

The recent escalation of bear killings has stoked concern among some outback residents, particularly those in tourist enclaves such as Lake Tahoe and Mammoth Lakes. They urge state Fish and Game Department officials to more fully embrace nonlethal alternatives before giving permission to kill the animals.

State wildlife officials say a death warrant is the last resort for any problem bear. A homeowner must first take steps to clear out whatever attracted the animal, be it an unattended garbage can or unfenced orchard. Only if the invader continues to return and damage property, wildlife officials say, is a resident given the option of a permit to kill.

But a few California communities are taking matters into their own hands.

Police in Mammoth Lakes have enlisted outdoorsman Steve Searles and his arsenal of rubber bullets, pepper spray and pyrotechnic missiles to send bears lumbering back into the woods. To the north in Sierra County, the Sheriff's Department has outfitted deputies with "bear kits" containing similar nonlethal ballistics to dish out a dose of tough love.

And in Homewood, a tidy thatch of houses hugging the northwest shore of Lake Tahoe, residents upset by the killing of a sow and her cub have formed the Bear Preservation League. The all-volunteer cadre serves as a rapid deployment force to soothe nerves and suggest remedies when a bear comes calling.

"It's a gigantic task," said Bob Malm, one of the group's founders. "When I first moved here, I never saw any bears. Now I see them daily. I've watched the bear population just explode."

The boom began more than a decade ago, when the state tightened rules for hunting bears. Numbering an estimated 15,000 statewide in the 1980s, the black bear population has now ballooned to about 25,000.

Street smart and gifted with a keen sense of smell, black bears can unscrew a mayonnaise jar to lick out the contents or stand on tiptoe to suck a hummingbird feeder dry. Combining such dexterity with awesome strength, they can peel the door off a car if the scent of food wafts from inside. (At Yosemite National Park, rangers say the bears prefer Hondas and Toyotas.)

Black bears are more docile than their cousin, the grizzly, and their attacks on people are rare. But once a bear equates a particular neighborhood, homestead or restaurant dumpster with chow time, they are like any creature of habit, returning again and again for a meal.

Some people are easy marks, leaving a full dog food bowl on the back deck or putting a trash can in ready reach. At vacation spots, scofflaws invite trouble by purposely setting out food to lure bears within photo range.

"A bear problem usually is a people problem," said Don Koch, state Fish and Game northern regional manager. Game wardens and park rangers have an old saying: A fed bear is a dead bear. Once the animals get acquainted with human food, the habit is hard to break, Koch said. "Rubber bullets aren't going to keep them away," he added.

In McCloud, just south of Mt. Shasta, sanitation officials put an end to the nightly feast at the local dump by switching to bear-proof garbage containers. But the move backfired. Stomachs growling, the bears began targeting homes instead.

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