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Black bear visits Sugarloaf State Park

The Sonoma Valley is no longer the wildlife parkland it once was, but every now and then a black bear still turns up, where it intersects the daily life of the people who live here now.

No, we're not talking about something as dramatic as Leonardo DiCaprio getting whipped about like a rag doll by an angry grizzly, in 'The Revenant.' This time it's a couple of footprints – and some intriguing video from a wildlife camera.

An experienced hiker first reported some apparent bear prints to Sugarloaf Ridge State Park manager John Roney in late November. The hiker had been on Gray Pine Trail near the summit of Bald Mountain, in the northeast quadrant of the 3,900-acre state park, and Roney believed his bearish tale.

So Roney contacted the residents of the park, telling them there was a 'credible sighting' of bear evidence. That prompted resource ecologist Bill Miller of California State Parks to check his wildlife cams. Sure enough, the motion-activated digital video camera had recorded five bear incidents on its image card on successive nights, including one where the ursine subject appears to sniff, then lick the lens.

It's difficult to tell if the bear is male or female, but it does seem to be a burly, well-fed animal. Bears are notoriously slow-moving in winter (some call it hibernation) but the comparatively warm weather these days could make their range wider.

The bear video was from the Stern Ranch, a big square area in the middle of Sugarloaf Ridge that was once the get-away for the Sigmund Stern clan of San Francisco (think Stern Grove). Now it's a wild area under public trust.

Bears aren't the only wildlife that use the State Parks system, apparently. 'We've also had a number of mountain lion sightings up here,' said Roney. 'We had three or four daylight mountain lion sightings in a two-week period, which is an unusually high number.'

The Sonoma Valley is at the south end of range of the California black bear's North Coast population, which extends up to the Klamath Mountains. The same subspecies (Ursus americanus californiensis, if you're keeping score at home) is found in the Sierra and the southwestern part of the state, even in the coastal mountains, as defined by their territory. But the species ranges up the West Coast into Canada and Alaska, morphologically almost identical to their Sonoma cousins.

'Black bears are curious, intelligent, and fortunately for us, afraid of humans,' said Richard Dale, of the Sonoma Ecology Center, who has had several close encounters with bear over the years. 'Apparently, shouting and making threatening gestures back works to scare a black bear off. I've found this to be the case, even if the bear goes grudgingly.'

Still, as uncommon as a bear sighting seems to be, it's not that rare. In September 2013 there were bear sightings in Sugarloaf, complete with a shot of a bear crossing a stream from a wildlife camera. Dale at that time speculated the bear was probably a younger individual looking for a place to set up a territory.

Back in the last century, in 1999, a young bear climbed a tree at the Gaige House Inn in Glen Ellen, drawing quite a crowd. He was tranquilized and removed to Lake County by state wildlife rangers.

Historically, bears are not strangers to the Sonoma Valley. The town is after all the birthplace of the Bear Republic. It also boasts the Sign of the Bear kitchenware shop on the Plaza, with the Black Bear Diner just a block away. And in the Depot Museum, a pair of bear foot boots, purportedly once worn by U.S. Grant, represents all that's left of the fabled fracas between Joseph Hooker (later a Civl War major general) and a cinnamon grizzly at a cabin just outside of town. (The one with the knife won.)

Email Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.

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