Be Bear Aware!
Everyone knows the symbol of wildfire prevention is Smokey Bear and inquisitive visitors of the Tahoe National Forest often ask about bears. Sometimes, they see bears! This time of year, bears are coming out of hibernation and Tahoe National Forest is in black bear country. At one time the Grizzly; California’s official state animal, once thrived throughout the state.
Even though there has been no documented grizzly bear sighting in California recently, the American black bear is the only bear species inhabiting the Golden State. Now, the California state flag is probably the only place where residents will see a Grizzly bear.
Species in North America include the American black bear, the Grizzly (brown) bear and the Polar bear. Although generally smaller than their formidable grizzly cousins, black bears – especially adult males - are large animals. Black bears vary in color from tan or brown to black. Typically they are dark brown with a brown muzzle. Adult females weigh 100 - 200 pounds and adult males are larger, at 150 - 350 pounds, though individuals over 600 pounds have been taken by hunters in California.
Black bears are excellent climbers and they can quickly climb a tree. As common residents of the Tahoe National Forest, black bears primarily live in the forest and woodlands. Black bears are not known to reside in open grasslands or in the desert.
Black bears are omnivores, which mean they will eat just about anything. In California, they eat a variety of food items often based on seasonal availability. This includes grasses, tubers, roots, seeds, nuts, grubs, ants, carrion, small mammals, young calf elk, fawn deer, and even birds and their eggs.
Larry Cordova, Wildlife Biologist for the U.S. Forest Service says that during the spring, summer, and fall, bears are calorie gathering machines. “It’s all about food for bears much of the time,” he says.
Bears do most of their foraging at night, although females with cubs may also be active during the day.
Bears go into dens around November and emerge in March depending upon the temperatures. However, bears are not true-hibernators. Hibernation refers to a state characterized by low body temperature, slow breathing and heart rate, and slow metabolic rate. Although a bear’s body temperature will drop slightly in the den, they can be aroused easily. They require shelter from the wind and cold to avoid disruption of their sleep.
Although male (boar) and female (sow) black bears generally live solitary lives, they can be found together during mating season which occurs about mid-summer. Even after fertilization of the eggs, the embryo does not immediately implant into the uterus.
“This delayed-implantation occurs in the den and only if the fat reserves of the female are adequate enough to maintain pregnancy,” Cordova said.
One to four cubs (commonly two or three) are born in the den in January. Each cub is about 8 inches long and weighs about 10 ounces. Once cubs have left the womb, they latch onto the sow’s teats, feed on her milk, and grow until the spring. This happens while the mother is soundly sleeping.
Every week for five to six weeks the cubs double in size. When they are about 18 inches long, the family emerges from the den in search of food.
The sow does all the cub-rearing. Like mothers of all kinds, sow black bears are extremely protective and attentive toward their cubs until they can survive on their own, which takes about two years. Mother bears teach the cubs to hunt and forage, and to escape danger by hiding, climbing trees, and being quiet.
Black bear sows are sexually mature at four years old and then breed every other year for their lifespan, which is 20 to 25 years in the wild.
Many forest users in this area will never see a bear. Cordova said black bears have a very keen sense of hearing and smell. They often see or smell humans and disappear into forest cover without a trace. Cordova explains that “because of a bear’s poor eyesight it’s recommended that if you startle a black bear, you should wave your arms and look big, and the bear will normally just walk or run away.”
Black bear attacks are extremely rare, and generally occur when a human is between a sow and her cubs, or when an unsuspecting foraging bear is startled.
The best defense against a bear attack is prevention. Humans in bear country – especially during dusk or dark light – are encouraged to make noise, especially by talking or singing, to alert bears of their presence. Carrying and knowing how to use bear pepper spray could also save your life if a bear charges.
Cordova reiterates the saying a “fed bear is a dead bear.”
With its keen sense of smell and its zest for calories, bears are naturally attracted to garbage and other sources of human food in your camping cooler. Proper food storage means all garbage and foods are in a hard-sided vehicle or bear proof storage container or hung 10 feet in the air at a back-country campsite. The following are some bear truths, which will help keep bears wild and visitors safe:
- Keep a clean campsite. Store food and garbage out of sight and in closed vehicles.
- Never put food scraps or litter in the campfire; it attracts bears and skunks.
- Don't keep food, medicine, chap-stick, shampoo – or anything that smells - in tents or sleeping areas.
- Store stoves, barbeques, and Dutch ovens in a vehicle or secure place when not using. Do not pour used cooking oil or food remnants on the ground.
- When camping in the back country hang food and garbage from a tree limb at least 10 feet from the ground and 5 feet from the tree trunk. The tree should be at least 100 yards from your sleeping area.
- Some bears also target motor oil, insect repellant, liquor and other things that look like food. Make sure you put these items away.