Black bear sightings have become commonplace in some areas of La Cañada Flintridge. Torrential rains earlier this year have helped wildlife and made food sources more plentiful compared to years of drought in the past.
Earlier this year, city officials hosted a virtual presentation from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife titled, “Living with black bears in Southern California.” The hourlong session presented by Mackenzie Rich and Jessica West with CDFW went over black bear biology, behavior and diet, but also some preventative measures.
Rich said that bears only need food, water and shelter for a suitable habitat. They can easily find those things in the LCF community through trash cans, outdoor fridges and ponds or pools. They usually find shelter in shrubbery around homes, spaces under homes or trees.
“All of those things together are going to draw in other bears and other wildlife,” said Rich. “So, we are definitely going to see bears in what we would consider our ‘human country’ because it’s still suitable habitat. So, there really is no such thing as bear country.”
Even though many assume that residents will only see a bear in the mountains, the wild animals have made their way into local neighborhoods.
“Historically it was mountainous areas of Northern California, but more recently it can be nearly all mountainous and foothill areas of California,” said Rich.
Spaces like mountainous areas, riparian corridors, woodlands, trails are where you would typically find a black bear, but more recently they have been seen to be behind homes a lot more.
Although some residents might know how to protect themselves when they see a bear, not all are ready.
On his usual morning walks around 6 a.m., LCF resident Brad Ratliff will sometimes spot a bear in his path near Stardust Road in the northeastern edge of the city.
Most of the time, the 25-year resident will find them during trash day looking for food to eat or hanging out under a tree to stay cool.
“If I see two or three coyotes wandering around, I usually then start looking for a bear because that means the coyotes have usually been into somebody’s trash,” said Ratliff, who served as Pasadena Tournament of Roses president in 2017.
Ratliff knows better than to leave the house without his bear spray, just in case he encounters an aggressive bear. But when he does get uncomfortable, his first tactic is to put his arms in the air and yell.
“I’m not really ever surprised when I see a bear,” said Ratliff. “It’s usually a fair distance away.”
One bear caught him by surprise when he stepped out of his home to find one just 4 feet away having lunch from the trash can. He knows that encountering a bear in his yard is somewhat unavoidable.
“The bear that came into my yard a couple of weeks ago actually climbed over a fence and broke part of the fence off,” said Ratliff.
He knows to keep his trash locked up when it isn’t trash day, just like many other residents in LCF.
Caroline Craven, whose family has resided in LCF for 62 years, sees a bear almost daily in her part of town near Alta Canyada Road.
“It’s amazing how agile they are,” said Craven. “I watched this mama bear come over the fence, and it’s amazing the balance they have. They’ve walked across our fence while we’ll be in the kitchen.”
Craven, like Ratliff, locks up her garbage cans when it is not trash day.
“My biggest concern is that we’ve got kids walking to school starting in a couple of weeks, and I just wanted to remind people to keep their trash locked up,” said Craven.
She has heard stories from LCF residents of having a bear inside their home or stealing a handyman’s lunch from the back of his truck.
Craven said that she usually sees bears during the summer months when they want to cool down in the pool and know where to find food.
“I feel it’s our responsibility just to be thoughtful,” she said. “Know that they’re not there to hurt us. But we also need to be smart in the decisions we make to keep them safe. We always grew up knowing that a fed bear is a dead bear because once a bear starts to seed, it’s either going to get hit by a car, or it’s going to become aggressive.”
Mary Robbins has been a LCF resident for 24 years and has seen a bear on three different occasions in her neighborhood around Jarvis Avenue during the last year.
“Bears don’t make me that nervous because I know they’re looking for easy food, typically from garbage cans,” said Robbins. “I often see garbage cans turned over on the street, and I think it’s from bears. So I keep an alert eye out on Mondays and Tuesdays, garbage days.”
Robbins does stay protected when she goes on walks by carrying a whistle and is mostly concerned for her safety when it comes to a pack of coyotes.
“The bear I saw was not aggressive,” said Robbins. “I believe he was looking for an easy garbage meal. Because I was walking with a small dog, I felt the best decision was to turn around and walk home, keeping high alert as I know bears can easily jump over backyard fences through a neighbor’s yard.”
She tries to also keep her neighbors safe by alerting them when she sees a bear.
In her presentation, Rich also mentioned that bears have an excellent sense of smell, which attracts them to homes.
“For context, a black bear’s nose is about 100 times better than a person and about seven times better than a bloodhound, and they are using that excellent sense of smell to hone in on food,” said Rich.
She said that bears are on the constant hunt for food, and their diet can be compared to an omnivore, which eats primarily plants, fruits, nuts and insects even though they are often misclassified as carnivores.
“Many will ask, ‘Why can’t we just relocate the bear?’” said Rich.
The problem resides in the situation at hand, which is bears will almost always return to the same place or be killed trying to, just knowing that there is food there. Some bears have been known to be transported more than 200 miles from neighborhoods, but manage to find their way back to that street and, in most cases, food source.
The same was true for a bear who used to frequent LCF named Meatball, who was known to consistently go into residents’ backyards and through their refrigerators.
Some residents started to get uncomfortable with his presence and were counting the number of strikes the bear had before being removed. He was transported to San Diego’s Lions Tigers and Bears sanctuary in 2012. He is currently 16 years old and he is a “pretty spoiled bear,” according to the sanctuary’s Founder and Director Bobbi Brink.
“In Meatball’s case, [he became a problem when] he was coming for trash every night,” said Brink. “Then even when they captured him and took him a couple hundred miles away, he came back to the same trash cans. That’s why bears are so smart. It only takes one person to feed him, and they will continue to come back to that same place. Then I think there’s fear, so people get really afraid, even though they’re just being a bear.”
Meatball is seemingly living the life of a king, with his own den to sleep in, a pool to dip in and a series of treats, like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Brink said that the sanctuary houses animals from all over the world.
“I have moved 1,000 lions, tigers and bears in the last 20 years to not only my sanctuary, but to other sanctuaries across the country,” said Brink. “So, we work with the first responders all across the country and abroad.”
Their goal at the sanctuary is not to get more animals to take care of, but to educate the community in how to coexist with bears.
“In our education programs, we try to teach the kids that a fed bear is a dead bear, so never ever feed a bear because it could cost them their life,” said Brink. “Just be ‘bear aware’ and how we can coexist with the bears in the wild.”
Currently, Meatball lives with six other bears in a species-specific habitat of only black bears, but the sanctuary also has Himalayan black bears, grizzly bears and a Syrian brown bear.
“We try to keep the bears in the wild,” said Brink. “We want the bears to stay in the wild, but we’re kind of like their last chance.”
CDFW also encourages people not to feed bears because of its dangerous impact.
“You should never feed wildlife,” said Rich. “Whether that is intentionally leaving food out, or unintentionally with an unsecured trash or refrigerator.”
Other local residents, like Valerie Myers, are not used to seeing bears and don’t know what to do if they encounter one. As a 34-year resident, Myers has only seen two bears in her time at LCF. She saw her first one about five years ago and her second one this past month near the La Cañada Flintridge Country Club.
“What was kind of funny about the bear is that it looked very comfortable,” said Myers. “Just kind of ambled along, it didn’t look particularly threatening.”
But what she saw next seemed to be something out of a cartoon.
“It stopped and looked at a side yard to see if he could get to trash cans and, ultimately, about five houses down the street, it ended up in the middle of the street, where it met a coyote,” said Myers.
Her initial thoughts when she encounters a bear?
“It doesn’t quite compute when you first see it, and then you think, ‘Wait a minute, that shouldn’t be here.’”
She admitted that she doesn’t know what to do if she comes across an aggressive bear or a bear that just gets too close for comfort.
“Do you call somebody?” asked Myers. “What do you do? But I was not aware of what to do. So that might be a nice little aspect of public service to let people know what the right thing to do is.”
The tactic of “looking big” and yelling at the bear to scare it is highly recommended to community residents from CDFW. Most of the time, bears are scared of people.
Rich said if the bear is not approaching you, respect them and give them space. Do not turn around and start running, but rather let the bear have room to escape.
Residents can also acquire deterrents, which are devices or methods to keep wild animals away. Examples include a bowl of ammonia on top of trash cans, air horns, motion-activated flashing lights, sounds or sprinklers, electric fences, barking dog calls on loop or a handheld radio playing.
Rich said that it’s all about experimenting with different methods over time.
“Every animal is an individual and will show varying levels of habituation to deterrents,” said Rich, adding that conversations with neighbors to see what works or doesn’t is also helpful.
Most of the time, conflicts with bears can evolve due to things that usually would be in front or backyards, like bird feeders, pet food, livestock, gardens, barbecues, refrigerators, beehives and, more commonly, trash cans.
Rich suggests that residents take these simple steps to prevent conflicts:
- Manage the habitat around your home
- Protect yourself, pets and livestock
- Use deterrents/haze when appropriate
- Remove or prevent access to attractants
CDFW recommends that residents also report a serious incident to its website, Wildlife.ca.gov/WIR. An organization representative usually will respond both remotely and on-site, which can depend on the incident at hand.
The Crescenta Valley Sheriff’s Station has received about four calls over the last month regarding bear sightings.
“They’re not necessarily aggressive,” Sgt. Joseph Funches said of the bears. “What they’re doing is they’re looking for food. So, they’re going into trash cans, or they’re trying to cool off and will go into pools.”
Funches tells residents to lock up their homes, since a bear will try to go anywhere where they smell food.
“In actuality, we’re invading their space,” he said. “It’s their habitat. So, it’s the other way around, but people don’t understand that.”
Rich also mentioned that cities can sometimes put ordinances in place for bears in the name of safety, but LCF doesn’t have any, according to Arabo Parseghian, the city’s director of administrative services.
Rich also recommended that residents use bear-resistant trash cans.
“We do not have bear-resistant bins at public facilities,” said Joshua Jeffrey, the city’s management analyst. “Bear-resistant barrels are available from some of the city’s authorized [trash] haulers for the public for purchase. Residents interested in bear-resistant barrels may contact their waste hauler for additional information and availability.”
To watch the informational video presented by CDFW, visit youtu.be/S9kZ41VGWcg.
To learn more about the Lions Tigers and Bears San Diego Animal Sanctuary, visit lionstigersandbears.org.
First published in the July 27 print issue of the Outlook Valley Sun.