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Living with Wildlife: 02/15/2017

Sonoma Valley = Bear Country

black bear
Black bear

Last month I went to a lecture entitled “Bear at the Barracks,” put on by the State of California Department of Parks and Recreation. The talk was about bears in Sonoma County, and more specifically in our local state parks. Judging by the standing-room-only crowd at the Sonoma Barracks, there is a lot of interest in bears.

Bears are getting more and more press these days, as their appearances become more frequent. I remember an incident many years ago, when a young male black bear wandered into Glen Ellen. It was big news. As he began to attract attention, he started climbing trees to get away from people. He wound up in a tree near the Gaige House, not far from where I live. A state biologist shot the bear with tranquilizer darts and he was safely removed from the tree with the assistance of the Glen Ellen Fire Department, and then released into a more suitable area. By all accounts, both the Glen Ellenites and the guests at the Gaige House who witnessed the event, were delighted. A happy ending to that story. That was in 1999. Not such a happy ending for the former last sighting of a bear around here who was killed for molesting livestock in 1980.

Prior to that, Sonoma County was part of the historical range of the grizzly bear, the bear that graces our state flag. The last time a grizzly was sighted in California was 1924, but it had disappeared in Sonoma County long before that. Some hope that grizzly bears might one day return to California. Others would prefer that they don’t. Grizzly bears are huge and can be quite menacing, whereas black bears are much smaller and more mellow.

The bears that we are seeing now are black bears, although they can be brown, tan or even a cinnamon color. According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, females can weigh from 100-200 pounds; a male can weigh up to 350 pounds. The females breed every other year and have one or two cubs. The cubs will stay with mom for one and a half to two years. They like to live in dense forests. Although they are categorized as omnivores, they mostly eat a plant-based diet consisting of nuts, berries, acorns, grasses, and roots according to the season. Black bears are very curious, highly intelligent, and dynamic. They can quickly scramble up a tree, are good swimmers, and, for short distances, can run up to 25 mph!

A modern way of tracking wildlife is with trail cameras. These non-invasive cameras can be put up along trails to capture whatever might be coming by. As a lot of wild animals are nocturnal we rarely see them. The ones that are active in the daytime are usually shy and want nothing to do with humans, so we rarely see them either. With the help of these cameras, we are learning a lot about the wildlife with whom we share our environment. Thanks to trail cameras, we have photos of bears in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, Hood Mountain, Modini Mayacamas Preserve, Pepperwood, and the Bouverie Preserve. A video of a mother bear with two cubs in Sugarloaf last August was especially exciting. That would indicate that bears live in the area, and that they are not just passing through.

Another way of identifying bear activity is finding their scat. Some friends of mine, whose property has a wildlife corridor running through it, spotted bear scat a couple of months ago. They had never seen it before. Not too long after that discovery, they went out one morning to find that something had destroyed their beehive which was quite close to their house. Judging by the weight of the hive, it could only have been a bear. As we all know, bears just love honey! The beehive has now been secured and is surrounded by an electric fence.

There are several theories as to why we now have a more visible bear population in Sonoma County. Nobody knows for sure, but it could be because we have so many wild places and have been welcoming to wildlife with our wildlife corridors. The habitat here is more suitable than it used to be with the suppression of fires creating more forests. Mendocino County has a healthy bear population and bears could be migrating south from there.

As with any wild animal, if you see a bear, you should keep your distance and be respectful. Try not to make eye contact, and quietly move on. Mothers with cubs, or any wild mothers for that matter, should never be made to feel that their offspring are in any danger. All wild moms are fiercely protective of their young. Dogs should be kept on leashes at all times when walking in parks.

We learned at the lecture that one of the goals of the California Department of Parks and Recreation is to educate people in this area about bears. In order to peacefully co-exist with them, we will need to learn more about them and how to live with them.

Sharon Ponsford is a a longtime volunteer with Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue and a former board member of the California Council of Wildlife Rehabilitators. She lives in Glen Ellen. If you have questions or would like to ask her about our local wildlife, please email her at

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