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Black bears move into Sugarloaf Ridge State Park

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A mother black bear and two young cubs captured on camera at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park have sparked excitement among park staffers in recent weeks, as well as inspiring steps intended to keep the animals safe and to minimize their interaction with human visitors.

Park personnel believe the appearance of a family group suggests a small bear population may be taking up residence in the area, not just passing through as was more likely the case in the past few years. Solo bears have been photographed by wildlife cameras around the region.

“I don’t think a mother bear would be traveling a long distance with her cubs,” said State Parks environmental scientist Bill Miller, who manages the motion-activated camera that recorded the trio as they passed by on the night of Aug. 21.

Not all of the area’s wildlife experts agree that the bears are permanent residents of the park, but their presence has inspired coordination between land managers at Sugarloaf and adjacent Hood Mountain Regional Park.

Employees are working to ensure that food brought into the parks is disposed of properly, leaving no chance for bears to find it and, perhaps, become habituated. That means acquiring bear-proof trash bins and educating the public about the critical importance of packing out everything and anything they might pack in, park staffers said.

Having bears in the park, especially young ones, also reinforces the importance of keeping dogs leashed, said Melanie Parker, natural resources manager for Sonoma County Regional Parks, although park rules already require that.

In the larger picture, the mother and cubs may be helping to recolonize a once-native area, a sign that efforts to keep the park wild and welcoming to wildlife have been successful, park personnel said. The growing presence of bears in the area also underscores the value of ongoing efforts to protect and expand wildlife corridors that permit animals to roam safely and unfettered between open spaces like parks and preserves, they said.

“Obviously it just makes me happy to know there are habitats that are natural and wild enough to support black bear populations. That’s really exciting,” said Parker, whose cameras at Hood Mountain have picked up male bears on three occasions in the past 2½ months.

“I think seeing the cubs is a game changer, in terms of knowing that there’s reproduction happening here, and females or males finding each other, and females finding enough food and security to rear offspring,” she said.

Bears have been sighted in Sonoma County from time to time, particularly in the West County area, where roaming bears have been reported near Occidental, Sebastopol and Guerneville, as well as the Willow Creek Watershed, part of Sonoma Coast State Park.

Farther inland, an increasing number of wildlife cameras have picked up black bears among myriad other wildlife that use our parklands, preserves and trails by night, when people aren’t around.

In addition to Hood Mountain and Sugarloaf, bears have been captured on camera at Pepperwood Preserve, north of Santa Rosa; Modini Mayacamas Preserve, northeast of Healdsburg; and at Bouverie Preserve, near Glen Ellen, the southernmost documented sighting in the county, according to Jeanne Wirka. She is director of stewardship for Audubon Canyon Ranch, which owns the 535-acre preserve. Cameras at Pepperwood and Modini also have captured cubs.

“They’re around,” said Susan Townsend, a wildlife ecologist who has installed and managed wildlife cameras in a number of North Bay settings, including these.

But although the same camera that caught the mother and babies in August has recorded single bears 15 times since September 2013, state parks personnel don’t believe there have been cubs in the Sugarloaf area any time recently.

Roney said no one has actually seen a bear at Sugarloaf so far, adding that park officials are not especially worried that visitors could encounter one in a local park. Unlike grizzly bears, black bears naturally steer clear of humans and are rarely considered dangerous.

In the event someone should come across one, Parker said, they should “show that bear some deference and respect” by lowering their gaze and backing slowly away. “They’re not going to come after you.”

Added Roney, “The fact that nobody has seen these large creatures who are wandering around means they’re doing their best to stay away from us. We want to keep it like that, so we’re not particularly concerned about human-bear interactions. Our bigger concern is that the bears lose their fear of humans and then start going through the trash cans and the campgrounds. That’s bad for the bears and bad for us.”

The Sonoma County bears have left behind plenty of evidence, including scat, large overturned rocks and scratch marks on tree bark. In Sugarloaf, State Parks Archaeologist Breck Parkman also found what he believes to be a tuft of bear hair caught on barbed wire.

Scarcity of water during recent drought years or even expansive wildfires in Lake County may have contributed to their migrations. Some experts believe the state’s black bears also are extending their range in the northwestern part of California, as well as farther south in the Mayacamas.

“I’ve been here like 40 years,” Parkman said. “I know in the state parks like Sugarloaf, about every 10 years a bear comes along, but it’s only there for a while. ... The last 10 years we’re seeing them more often.”

Though black bears are still hunted in some areas, their population in California has been growing in recent years and is estimated at 35,000 or more, according to a California Fish and Wildlife report released earlier this year. In 1982, the population was estimated at between 10,000 and 15,000.

Though their traditional range includes the Mayacamas Mountains, sightings in the southernmost portion of the range have been rare, especially compared with nearby areas of northern Sonoma County and Napa County, experts said.

“Up at Pepperwood, they see bears and cubs all the time,” said Sugarloaf Park Manager John Roney. “That’s farther north, and it’s not that much farther north. In this section of the Mayacamas, it’s been a long time.”

Bears are omnivores that thrive in areas with a variety of habitat types and seasonal foods like manzanita berries, acorns, grasses, insects and grubs. They may also kill and eat small or medium-sized animals, though about 85 percent of their diet is plant-based, according to experts.

But if they are exposed to human food, or even packaging, they can be tempted to stray from their natural diet and seek out human food, which quickly makes them a problem.

“They’ll end up paying the price for it,” Breckman said.

At Sugarloaf, the staff is cleaning out the trash cans daily and is shopping for bear-proof receptacles for outlying areas, Roney said.

But public awareness is key to ensuring that none of the region’s bears are exposed to human leftovers or litter, which are commonly found at picnic areas, trailheads and even campsites.

“We’ll be looking at how to manage people and garbage in all those settings throughout the park to make sure we’re keeping those bears safe,” Parker said.

Wildlife ecologist Meghan Walla-Murphy said the range and habits of Sonoma County’s black bears have never been fully documented or mapped, though she hopes to start a study of them next year. If all goes as planned, her findings could contribute to public awareness and the kind of peaceful coexistence that residents of other states have managed.

“The bears are here for sure, and I think they’ve been in the county for a long time, and they’re hanging out in less well-known places,” Walla-Murphy said. “But as we get more fragmentation of habitat and more people out in wildlife … we’re going to start seeing them more and more. Which is a good thing.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. Twitter: @MaryCallahanB.