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Group trying to build Sonoma ‘bear culture’

In 2013 this California black bear takes refuge in a tree behind the Gaige House in Glen Ellen, A biologist from the Department of Fish and Game tranquilized the 125 pound male bear, which had to be removed from the tree by a ladder truck.

ANNE WARD ERNST,

There are long-told tales from vineyard growers that they don’t need a refractometer to know when their grapes are ready for harvest, they just wait for the bears to come down from the hills to snack off the vines.

Wildlife cameras throughout Sonoma County, including at wineries, Sugarloaf Ridge State Park and Pepperwood Preserve, are capturing sightings of bears – and other wildlife – giving rise to the increasing discussion of how bears and humans can co-exist.

A myth that Meghan Walla-Murphy, a wildlife ecologist, would like to dispel is that bears are harmful to humans – they are not, she said. The truth is, they are “scaredy bears,” she said. “They’re really quite shy. They are not really interested in interacting with us if they can avoid it.”

Bears are “an apex predator,” said Steve Hammerich, wildlife specialist with Pepperwood Preserve, and though they are omnivorous, they mostly eat plants, berries, acorns and insects. “Humans are pretty much the only threat to them.”

Walla-Murphy and Hammerich are part of a loosely formed coalition of wildlife specialists called North Bay Bear Collaborative, whose mission is to build a culture where living with bears is second nature.

“We want to help people live peacefully with our ursine neighbors,” Walla-Murphy said.

The California grizzly bear (Ursus arctos californicus), which lumbers across the state flag and seal, no longer exists. But the California Department of Fish and Wildlife reports that there are some 30,000 black bears (Ursus americanus) now roaming about 52,000 square miles in California, including Sonoma Valley.

Since about 2015, reports and sightings of black bears have climbed, according to members of the collaborative, including Sugarloaf Ridge State Park and Pepperwood Preserve, which have videos and photos of black bears caught on camera on their properties. Sugarloaf’s video shows at least two different bears – distinguishable by a white mark on one bear’s chest – moving about in September. Pepperwood has photos taken throughout the last couple of years of black bears – and several other kinds of wildlife – strolling through forested areas.

John Roney, park manager of Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, said the North Bay Bear Collaborative – which has a new website BeingWithBears.org – has three main components: public outreach and education; improve infrastructure; and research and data collection.

The collaborative wants to “get ahead of the curve” as it relates to humans living in harmony with bears, Walla-Murphy and Roney said.

They want to avoid situations like what occurs in Yosemite and Lake Tahoe where bears have become what they call “nuisance bears.” There, bears have become “habituated,” Walla-Murphy said, and they don’t want that to happen in Sonoma County.

“Bears are incredibly intelligent, they teach their babies” how to search for food, she said.

One of the first steps toward that mission is public outreach and education, such as an informational meeting on Jan. 12 in Kenwood, where Walla-Murphy will present research and answer questions about living amicably with bears.

They hope that residents who live in the Adobe Canyon Road and Sugarloaf area will attend the meeting to learn about bears, and how to change their behavior so that bears “don’t become trash-eating, breaking-in nuisance bears,” Roney said. They will also be working with ranchers, beekeepers and vineyard owners to provide advice and guidance on what to do, though Roney said he’s come across a number of vineyard owners who aren’t bothered much by the loss of their grapes to bears.

The bear collaborative is working on infrastructure at Sugarloaf installing bear-proof trashcans, for example, and collaborating with Recology to work with them on various aspects of trash and recycling, Roney said.

A version of the collaborative has been in the works since about 2016, Walla-Murphy said, with momentum picking up this year. In addition to the involvement of Pepperwood and Sugarloaf, the collaborative includes Sonoma County Regional Parks, California State Parks, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Sonoma Ecology Center and Audubon Canyon Ranch, to study bears habits and habitats.

Walla-Murphy and the others are most excited about the scientific research component of the collaborative’s work.

“The really cool thing is nobody’s studied black bears in Sonoma County,” she said.

They will be working with a GIS specialist who will use the various cameras to map where bears are being detected, and overlap those data points with vegetation, seasons, and proximity to neighborhoods, for example, to get a better idea of where bears are habiting.

“We’ll do DNA collection through scat and hair snags to see how bears in the area are related,” she said.

Hammerich said the data will also help them determine potential corridors so they can get more cameras in those areas, too. Bears have been detected in a wide range in Sonoma County, including Bouverie Preserve in Glen Ellen, and Shiloh Ranch Regional Park in Windsor.

“Their range depends on resources. If they have their resources, they don’t have to go far,” Hammerich said. But if they are looking for food or water they will explore broader territory.

At this point it’s unclear how many bears there are in Sonoma County, and because it’s difficult to tell bears apart individually, Roney said, the DNA tests will furnish scientific data that will help determine the population.

The wildlife specialists are interested in collecting the legacy and ancestry of bears, and stories of bears in Sonoma County.

To ensure the collaborative’s mission continues, Walla-Murphy said they are working with the Kashia Pomo Indian tribe and youth in the tribe to build a “bear culture” in Sonoma County, similar to how ancestors initially lived in peace with the grizzly.

Contact Anne at anne.ernst@sonomanews.com.