May and June are bear season on the Monterey Peninsula. And I’m not just talking about the Seaside Police Department’s early morning bear shoot last week. May and June are the months when black bears seem most prone to wandering out of the Santa Lucia mountains and into the streets of town.
For instance …
In May 1999 a bear showed up at Starbuck’s in Sand City, then took a stroll up the beach to Ft. Ord (trespassing on Monterey Bay Shore Ecoresort property along the way). It was eventually cornered in an abandoned bunker, tranquilized, and returned to the wild.
In May 2001 a bear wandered the Monterey Peninsula for several days, until it ended up treed in downtown Carmel. Fish & Game officials shot it with a tranquilizer dart, after spreading some sleeping bags at the foot of the tree to soften its fall (seriously), only to have it climb higher into the tree, then fall to its death (missing the bags). Around the same time, a bear made a number of appearances in Corral de Tierra, along the Highway 68 corridor and at Laguna Seca.
A month later, in June 2001, a bear turned up at a Hertz Equipment Rental business in Salinas. The bear was tranquilized and safely returned to the hills.
In June 2002 a bear was spotted wandering through residential neighborhoods in Salinas. The police managed to restrain themselves from shooting, and it was duly tranquilized and sent back to the woods.
And, until last week, that may have been the last bear to be apprehended in these parts, although others have certainly been seen.
What this history suggests, other than that bears are more likely to be victims of gun violence on the Monterey Peninsula than in Salinas, is that there’s something special about this time of year. And indeed there is. May and June are the months when black bears, both male and female, begin to wander beyond the normal limits of their territories in search of mates.
Click here to read a very sad study on repetitive pacing behavior in caged animals, focused on none other than Smokey Bear himself, that found his pacing peaked in May and June and related it to the normal tendency of bears to wander at this time of year.
Given that bears still seem to be fairly few and far between in the Northern Santa Lucia mountains, finding a mate may not always be easy for bears in these parts. Could it be a desire for ursine companionship that drives these bears to wander so far from home, even risking their lives on the mean streets of Seaside and Carmel, rather than hunger or a quest for territorial expansion?
Once upon a time there were no black bears here at all. The grizzly reigned supreme and black bears were confined to the Sierra, on the far side of the San Joaquin Valley. But the last grizzly in the Monterey Bay area was killed in the 1880s and black bears have been slowly but surely infiltrating abandoned grizzly territory, using the Transverse Ranges north of Los Angeles to cross from the Sierra to the coastal mountains, since at least the 1930s. Moving north through the Southern Los Padres, they probably began reaching Monterey County in the 1950s.
According to a history put together by Mik Moore (who got interested when he saw a bear along Higgins Creek in the Ventana Wilderness in 1998) a bear was captured in Salinas in 1962 and another spotted near Soledad in 1964.
In 1979 a bear that somehow found its way into Saratoga, in Santa Clara County, was captured and apparently released in the Santa Lucias.
By the 1980s, bear sightings and captures were becoming relatively common in Monterey County. I remember visiting an orphaned cub that had been turned over to the SPCA in the mid ‘80s. That was before they began trying to raise young wild animals with minimal human contact in the hopes of preparing them for a life in the wild. Which means that while it was a remarkable experience for me, it probably helped doom the bear to a life of captivity or set it up for an untimely death, if it was released. Still, there’s no denying that we both had a lot of fun while it lasted.
The cub was intensely playful, inquisitive, energetic and intelligent. I was amazed at how it its paws seemed more than a match for the human hand in terms of dexterity. It liked nothing better than a good water fight and had zero difficulty figuring out how to use the hose. Anytime I sat down it would leap into my lap and nuzzle under my chin, then rush to grab a ball or another toy. On the one hand, it was like any playful young animal, but on the other, there was something about its attitude and energy that was always 100% bear.
It was also in the ‘80s that a small bear turned up at the Monterey Courthouse. It fell out of a tree after being hit with a tranquilizer dart and broke it’s leg, but I think it eventually recovered. Whether it ever made it back to the wild, I don’t know.
So how big is the bear population in Monterey County today? Bear encounters in the Ventana Wilderness are infrequent, suggesting the population remains pretty thin. Yet, in 2003 there was a mass arrest of professional bear poachers who had been operating (and apparently killing hundreds of bears) in places including the mountains of Monterey County – suggesting that at least parts of Monterey County have enough bears to make hunting them worth a poacher’s time.
While there may be close to 40,000 bears statewide, most live well to our north. Fish & Game estimates that less than 10% of California’s bears, or less than 4,000 bears total, live in the Coast and Transverse Ranges south of San Francisco. Fish & Game, a few years ago, estimated that a remarkably specific 1,067 of these bears live in San Luis Obispo County, but they don’t seem to have tried estimating Monterey County’s share. In any event, there’s no denying that bears are regularly killed by traffic on the Cuesta Grade north of San Luis Obispo.
So the bears are here and, given that there are probably fewer than the Santa Lucia mountains are capable of supporting, it won’t be a surprise if the population slowly increases over time.
This doesn’t have to be a problem for people or bears. Thousands of bears and people live side by side with little problem in other parts of the state. And in spite of the fact that bears mingle with people on a daily basis, it’s been at least 100 years since a wild bear killed anyone in California. Bears wander through populated areas every day. California’s black bears simply do not pose an imminent threat to the people in the neighborhoods they pass through.
The real problem caused by bears is property damage. That hasn’t yet been an issue in Monterey County and by not allowing bears access to human food and garbage, both in the Wilderness and at home, we are the ones who can prevent it from becoming a problem.