Last week's bear romping through downtown Willits and the two large bears struck and killed within the last month on Highway 101 may be a sign of things to come as the California black bear population continues to climb to record numbers.

This time of year bears are moving around looking for food sources as they gear up for winter, says DFG Biologist Scott Koller. Bears are now seeking to put on as much weight as possible before going into a winter of inactivity.

The Department of Fish and Game estimates the black bear population topped 32,000 in 2010, nearly double the population in the early 1980s. North coast bear populations are estimated by DFG to be between one to 2.5 bears per square mile.

According to Koller, he believes there is a significantly higher concentration of bears in most rural areas of Mendocino County. He recounted one recent deer hunter's report from east of Brooktrails where in a single day the hunter sighted 18 bears and all of the sows had two cubs. The hunter did not spot any deer.

 Some county vineyard owners are reporting bear trouble this year, for the first time ever. One vintner told Koller the bears seemed particularly attracted to his Syrah grapes.

Much like the coyote, California black bears were kept in check for much of history by a higher order predator. Prior to their extinction, the California grizzly kept local black bear populations small and relatively isolated. With the demise of the grizzly, the black bear has opportunistically expanded its range and population to fill the void. Coyotes were once similarly kept in check by wolves.

Until 1946, California considered bears to be fur animals and allowed unlimited hunting. In 1948 this changed as California reclassified bears as game animals and imposed hunting limits. Trapping bears for other than damage control was outlawed in 1961. In 1968 the annual individual hunter bag limit was dropped from two to one and in 1972 the killing of cubs or females with cubs was outlawed. In 1980 the DFG estimated there were about 20,000 bears in California, by 2010 the population has grown to 32,000.

From 1957 to 1983 hunters legally harvested between 800 and 900 bears each year. After 1983, this number climbed to between 1,500 and 2,000 animals as DFG expanded the season and increased the maximum take.

In 2010, hunters legally killed 1,503 bears in California, with 61 of these from Mendocino County. Shasta, Siskiyou, and Trinity counties accounted for nearly one-third of the total. This was on of the lightest harvest years in the past 10 years even though 24,859 hunters purchased tags.

The number of bears killed in Mendocino County is also down significantly. Koller has discussed this issue with local hunters. When DFG first aligned the bear and deer seasons, many hunters took advantage of the overlap and obtained a bear tag for the first time. After bagging their first bear, many hunters discovered the flavor of bear meat was not to their tastes, causing them not to purchase a tag in future years. This could also be related to hunters choosing to avoid some area wildlands due to expanded illegal horticultural.

Three of the top five California trophy bears including the number one bear were harvested in Mendocino County. The top trophy bear was killed in 1993 by Robert J. Shuttleworth Jr., according to the California Deer Association.
As of November 6 this year, hunters have harvested 767 bears statewide. Historically with two-thirds of all bears killed during August, September and October, this suggests the 2011 hunting season will result in fewer bears harvested than in any year this century.

In addition to the hunting season the DFG issues predation permits for bears each year. In 2010 it issued a record 307 permits statewide, although the number of bears actually killed was a more historical 51. Mendocino County had 13 predation permits and seven bears killed, which was fewer than in all but one of the past six years.

Bear hunters have been turning in pre-molar teeth of all harvested bears to the DFG for years. This has provided a clear indication of the age of all bears taken legally. The age of bears killed by California hunters range from 1 year old to more than 20 years. While the highest number killed were between two and three years old, about 15 percent were 8 years old or older.

The California black bear subspecies is not as heavy as its cousins in the east which have topped the scales at nearly 900 pounds. One of the heaviest California black bears ever captured weighed 680 pounds in 1938 although this was not an "official" weigh in and is discounted by record keepers.

 The official heaviest California bear ever killed by hunters weighed 574 pounds. Males are significantly larger than females. One of the bears hit by a vehicle south of Willits this month weighed over 400 pounds.

Avoiding unwanted encounters with bears

Bears are constantly searching for food, which humans inadvertently make obtainable to them. It is important for everyone to avoid creating odors that attract bears. They are attracted not only to food but also perfume, cologne and containers that once held food, says DFG biologists.

"A bear's fate is almost always sealed once it associates humans with food," said Marc Kenyon, DFG statewide bear program coordinator. "It's unfortunate when a bear becomes a threat and has to be killed because people either haven't learned how to appropriately store food and trash, or simply don't care."

DFG wardens and biologists respond to numerous wildlife feeding issues throughout the state. Access to human food or garbage, whether it is overflowing from a campground or residential dumpster or in the form of snacks in a tent, is the most common bear attractant. When wild animals are allowed to feed on human food and garbage, they lose their natural ways - often resulting in death for the animal.

Feeding wildlife or allowing wildlife access to human food provides unnatural food sources, habituates animals to humans and can change animal behavior from foraging for food in the wild to relying on human food sources in or near urban areas, which can lead to bears breaking into cars or houses to seek out food. It is also illegal to intentionally feed wildlife in California.

Bear Country Precautions:

While few Californians have ever been injured from encounters with black bears they do occur, especially when food or cubs are involved.

In bear country keep a close watch on children and teach them what to do if they encounter a bear.

Make noise to avoid a surprise encounter with a bear.

Never approach a bear or pick up a bear cub.
If you encounter a bear, do not run; instead, face the animal, make noise and try to appear as large as possible.
If attacked, fight back.
If a bear harms a person in any way, immediately call 911.