California’s black bears are active and hungry after a period of hunkering down through the winter. As a reminder, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) encourages people to help reduce unwanted encounters with this large mammal by being “bear aware.” People who visit or live in bear country can take actions that promote responsible behavior and safe co-existence with bears.
Black bears are the only bear species in California. They generally prefer mountainous areas and natural habitat. However, as more people visit parks and wilderness areas and choose to live in or near bear habitat, some bears may become used to the presence of people and as a result display less shy and avoidant behavior.
“Over the years, reported human-bear conflicts have increased significantly,” said Vicky Monroe, CDFW’s Wildlife Conflict Programs Coordinator. “Each spring and summer we receive numerous calls from the public reporting anything from black bears eating food off campground picnic tables to bears taking dips in residential swimming pools.”
Black bears have a diverse diet and can eat nearly anything, from berries and insects to pet food, human trash and road kill. They also have a highly specialized sense of smell, which can sometimes lead them to enter homes, cabins and tents while following their nose (and stomach) to a food source. Local communities and areas of human activity in or around bear habitat can provide a tempting food supply for a hungry bear. However, unwanted and/or destructive bear activity may be significantly reduced or even eliminated, when people are mindful and remember to remove attractants and access to food.
Tips for Bear-proofing your Home, Rental or Timeshare
Bears may venture into areas of human activity close to bear habitat, in search of food. The best defense against bear break-ins and bears in your yard is to eliminate attractants to your property by following these tips:
- Purchase and properly use a bear-proof garbage container.
- Wait to put trash out until the morning of collection day.
- Do not leave trash, groceries or pet food in your car.
- Keep garbage cans clean and deodorize them with bleach or ammonia.
- Keep barbecue grills clean and stored in a garage or shed when not in use.
- It is advised to not hang bird feeders in bear country. If you must, only do so during November through March and make them inaccessible to bears. Keep in mind bears are excellent climbers.
- Do not leave any scented products outside, even non-food items such as suntan lotion, insect repellent, soap or candles.
- Keep doors and windows closed and locked when unoccupied.
- Consider installing motion-detector alarms and/or electric fencing.
- Harvest fruit off trees as soon as it is ripe, and promptly collect fruit that falls.
- Bring pets in at night. Provide safe and secure quarters for livestock at night.
- Consider composting bins as opposed to open composting.
- Securely block access to potential hibernation sites such as crawl spaces under decks and buildings.
- Do not spray bear spray around property – when it dries, it can serve as an attractant.
- Do not feed deer or other wildlife – this will attract bears to your property.
Tips for Bear Proofing your Campsite
Maintaining a clean campsite is the responsible and safe thing to do when visiting bear country. Here are a few tips for bear proofing your campsite:
- Haul garbage out of camp regularly – check with camp host or other camp personnel about safe garbage storage. Use bear lockers if available.
- Store food (including pet food) and toiletries in bear-proof containers or in an airtight container in the trunk of your vehicle if bear lockers are not available. In some areas, food storage in the trunk is not advisable. Check with camp or park personnel.
- Clean dishes and store food and garbage immediately after meals.
- Clean your grill after each use.
- Never keep food or toiletries in your tent.
- Change out of clothes you cooked in before going to bed.
- Do not clean fish in camp.
- Do not leave pets unattended in camp or sleeping outside.
- If in the backcountry, store food in a bear-resistant food canister.
- Use bear resistant ice chests (some jurisdictions will only allow ice chests that are approved as bear resistant)
Tips for Hiking in Bear Country
- Bears may react defensively if your presence is not known – make noise while hiking. Talk loudly or whistle.
- If possible, travel with a group of people.
- Avoid thick brush and walk with the wind at your back so your scent is ahead of you.
- Watch for bear sign along trails – scat, tracks and stripped bark off trees.
- Avoid sites where dead animal carcasses are observed.
- If you see a bear, avoid it and give it the opportunity to avoid you.
- Leash dogs while hiking in bear country – dogs can surprise and aggravate bears – bringing the bear back to you when the dog flees from the bear.
Black Bear Safety Reminders
- Black bear behavior is not always predictable. Human-bear attacks are rare in California; however, they do occur. There is no single safety strategy applicable to every bear encounter.
- Individual bears can display varying levels of tolerance and temperament.
- Prevention is better than confrontation.
- Keep as much distance as possible between you and the bear.
- Share this information with your children. Make sure they know to tell you if they see a bear in the area. Be Bear Aware.
Black Bear Encounters
These are general guidelines based on research by wildlife managers and scientists, intended to help keep you safe in the event of a black bear encounter. Keep in mind that safety tips for grizzly bears are not the same as for black bear. California does not have grizzly bears.
- If a bear breaks into your home, do not confront the bear. Most bears will quickly look for an escape route. Move away to a safe place. Do not block exit points. If the bear does not leave, call 911.
- If you encounter a bear in your yard, chances are it will move on if there is nothing for the bear to forage. If there is enough distance between you and the bear, you can encourage the bear to leave by using noisemakers or blowing a whistle.
- If you encounter a bear while hiking and it does not see you. Back away and increase your distance. Clap hands or make noise so the bear knows you are there and will move on.
- If you encounter a bear on the trail and it sees you. Do not make eye contact. Back away, do not run. Let the bear know you are not a threat. Give it a chance to leave.
- If a bear approaches you, make yourself look bigger by lifting and waving arms. Use noisemakers, or yell at the bear. If small children are present, keep them close to you.Carry and know how to use bear spray as a deterrent. In the event of a black bear attack, it is usually recommended to fight back. However, each situation is different. Prevention is the key.
Black Bear Facts
- Black bears are the only bear species found in California. They range in color from blonde to black, with cinnamon brown being the most common.
- There are an estimated 35,000 bears in California.
- Males are much larger than females and can weigh up to 500 pounds, although average weight is about 300 pounds.
- Black bears can sprint up to 35 mph and they are strong swimmers and great tree climbers.
- Bears are omnivorous eating foods ranging from berries, plants, nuts, roots, and honey, honeycomb, insects, larvae, carrion and small mammals.
- Bears typically mate in June and July.
- Bear cubs are born in winter dens in January and February and are hairless, deaf and blind.
- Black bear attacks are rare in California and typically are defensive in nature because the bear is surprised or defending cubs; however, bears accustomed to people may become too bold and act aggressively.
- Female black bears will often send cubs up a tree and leave the area in response to a perceived threat. Do not remain in the area – when you leave, she will come back for her cubs.
For more information about black bear biology please visit www.wildlife.ca.gov/Conservation/Mammals/Black-Bear/Biology.
For information about bear proof containers and where to buy them, please visit www.wildlife.ca.gov/Keep-Me-Wild/Products.
Victoria Monroe, CDFW Wildlife Conflict Program, (916) 856-8335
Lesa Johnston, CDFW Education and Outreach, (916) 322-8933