So far this year, four Sonoma County regions have experienced bears in their midst, including Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, which recently reported a black bear ambling across a critter-cam’s view on July 13 – and the next day at nearby Hood Mountain, caught by another critter-cam (a motion-activated camera located to keep tabs on wandering wildlife).
Other places also received bear reports, including downtown Healdsburg in May when a young black bear wandered city streets almost to the town plaza before returning to its lair, somewhere on Fitch Mountain. Santa Rosa and Sebastopol residents also reported late-night sightings. Windsor and Sebastopol have also caught glimpses of traditionally elusive mountain lions, with sightings in both June and July, respectively.
For many locals, the news that bears are back is good news. John Roney, park manager at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, said when black bears with cubs were seen in 2015 for the first time in many years, it signified a full-time presence, not just a transient presence of black bears.
“After the fires, we were curious to see if the bears remain in the area. With the bears spotted at Hood Mountain Regional Park six or so weeks ago, it is some evidence, though not proof, that the bears are living around here as opposed to passing through.”
Roney isn’t sure why they have moved back in now. He suggested that bear populations in the north and east of the Mayacamas Mountain reached the area’s carrying capacity, and the bears moved to seek less populated areas.
Or perhaps it was just the fact that in the last few years the drop in the price of animal-sensing cameras has made them more ubiquitous, so rangers like Roney are just noticing the mountain lions and bears who have been here all along.
The July sightings were caught on one of 12 remote cameras set up in Sugarloaf, like those installed in most area parks to maintain a pulse on the region’s wildlife.
“Ironically, our new camera team set up their first camera the day before the fires started,” he said.
He said that the cameras are primarily used to track what animals are in the park and to create time-lapse photos to document plant regrowth and for education and engagement.
“Everybody loves a good animal photo,” he added.
Although the catalog of recent sightings may seem extensive enough for a worried citizen to lock their doors and stay out of nature’s way, Roney said given the area, there are very few bear and mountain lion sightings. “They see you, but fortunately they are typically very cautious around humans,” he said. “There have been no attacks in this area for many years.”
But these recent wildlife showings have sparked both concern and celebration among locals, yet regardless of the reaction to the animals everyone agrees that it’s good to know what to do when encountering one in person.
To start, hike in groups to avoid a chance meeting; both mountain lions and bears are often able to perceive large groups, which are generally louder and more pungent, at greater distances. This lessens the chance for close encounters.
According to the National Park Service (NPS), when either a bear or mountain lion has become aware that you are in its presence, the first, most crucial step is to stay calm.
In case of bear...
Proper etiquette goes a long way when enjoying the outdoors in bear country, and short reminders like the following are helpful to keep in mind.
• Leave pets at home.
• Do not approach a bear.
• Do not veer from trails.
• Do not speak loudly.
• Speak softly and calmly.
• Do not feed bears.
• Do not help orphaned or sick bears, there is often a mother nearby.
• Lastly, give bears their space, they need to feel like they are not challenged and have enough room to pass freely.
If attacked by a mountain lion, NPS advises to fight back, face the animal and try your best to remain on your feet while doing so since mountain lions are known to direct their bites toward the head or neck.
If you experience a sighting or attack, immediately report the details to a park ranger at a park visitor center or call (415) 464-5170 so that necessary protocol may be taken to ensure the health and safety of others.