Anyone who speaks Spanish knows that the town of Los Osos was named "bears". As you enter the Central Coast town, you'll see a statue of a bear, a remembrance of the region's heritage. California history would not be complete without mention of bears. At one time bears were everywhere! Native Americans in California used bears for tools, clothing and food. Today there are still many bears around, though the grizzly bear that adorns the California state flag is an extinct bear no longer seen in California. Grizzly Flats in El Dorado County was named for a bear that was killed by three miners defending their gold discovery.
From the University of California Berkeley where fans of the ball team cheer, "Go Bears!" to Bear Valley Mountain Resort in Alpine County or Big Bear Lake in San Bernardino mountains, the names are reminders of California's wildlife heritage.
When Big Bear Lake experienced its own small gold rush, the explorers arriving in the valley named it for the huge populations of bears that outnumbered humans there. Though no recent attacks of bears in the wilds have been reported in this popular mountain escape where youth groups, churches and families love to camp, one death did occur in 2008 when a brown bear fatally bit 39-year old Stephan Miller in the neck. The acting bear with credits in the movie Semi-Pro turned on its handler.
You can legally hunt adult male bears in California with a license during the season which starts in the fall and ends in December or sooner if the Department of Fish & Game determines 1,700 have been taken (dfg.ca.gov). Bear meat is slightly greasy, has a coarse texture and sweet flavor, so it's not real popular. There are also diseases humans can contract through bear meat if not cooked properly.
Bears are barely on the radar of the majority of Californians-until vacationers visit places such as Yosemite National Park or Sequoia / Kings Canyon National Parks. When you stay inside the park, you're suddenly warned that bears are a problem and you have to adopt a whole new way of living. You can't leave even a gum wrapper in your parked car or you may find your windows broken out by a bear-they have an incredibly strong sense of smell. If the special bear-proof trash cans and warnings about leaving food around don't sink in, then be sure to become versed on what to do if approached by a bear.
Unlike potential attacks by dogs where you are advised to not look dogs in the eye, the goal with bears is to stare back, wave your arms, make noise and try to get them to back off. Bears are normally shy of humans and quickly get out of your way. However, if they've had luck finding food at campsites, some bears lose their fear and start visiting campsites and even frequent the commons areas of hotels inside the California national parks, regularly looking for something to eat.
Each year, Park staff spend hundreds of hours dealing with problem bears. As visitors camping in bear country, you have a responsibility to follow the bear rules and to know what to do if you encounter a bear.
1. Never feed or approach a bear.
2. Store food out of reach of bears. Store all your food (including pet food) inside the closed trunk of your vehicle, if possible. Do not store food, cooking utensils or fragrant items, such as soap, toothpaste, or shaving cream in your tent. When camping, put all food in a pack and hang it well off the ground, and away from the vicinity of your tent. Burn any food scraps and fat drippings (no plastics, styrofoam, or aluminum foil) thoroughly in a HOT fire. Any remaining garbage should be placed in your litter bag and suspended along with the food. To eliminate food odors, dishes should be washed immediately after each meal (preferably well away from your campsite).
3. Keep campsite clean.
Most human-bear encounters result in no damage to property or harm to people but bears are powerful animals and the potential for damage or injury must be taken seriously.
1. A fleeing bear - Enjoy the fleeting sight of a wild Black Bear.
2. An Habituated Bear - Stay calm and determine if the bear is aware of you. If the bear is unaware of you, move away quietly. However, if the bear is aware of you, talk to the bear in a low tone, wave your arms, back away, and leave the area. If you are near a building or car, get inside as a precaution. If the bear was attracted to food or garbage, remove it after the bear leaves to discourage the bear from returning.
3. A Defensive Bear - It may use vocalizations such as huffing, blowing air loudly through nostrils, exhaling loudly and "popping" of teeth, and may swat the ground with its fore paws, lowering its head, and drawing back the ears. A defensive bear may also resort to bluff charges. The bear is feeling threatened by your presence and is trying to get you to back off. Stop and face the bear. If you are with others, stay together and act as a group. Make sure the bear has a clear escape route. Slowly back away while watching the bear and wait for it to leave. Use a whistle or airhorn, or bear spray if you have them. Do not turn and run - this may trigger a predatory response in the bear.
4. A Predatory Bear - Predatory bears are quite rare. Instead of making make huffing or popping sounds, or bluff charging you, they silently stalk or press closer and closer to their intended prey, apparently assessing whether it is safe to attack. Never turn and run. If you can't escape by getting in a car or canoe, you're probably going to have to confront the bear. Do everything in your power to make the bear think twice about attacking you. Be aggressive, yell, throw rocks, hit the bear with sticks, and use your whistle, airhorn, or bear spray if you have them. If a predatory bear does make contact with you, do not play dead. Fighting back with everything you have is the best way to persuade a predatory bear to halt its attack.