Black bears are being killed on California roads in record numbers

Whether emblazoned on the California flag or described in myth, the bear is a powerful symbol of courage and strength – a fierce embodiment of the North American wilderness.

In reality, however, the bear is vulnerable.

Nearly a century after the California grizzly was hunted to extinction, its less-aggressive cousin, the black bear, is being killed in record numbers on California’s highways, experts say.

The unprecedented increase in fatal vehicle accidents is likely the result of bears fleeing massive wildfires in the Sierra Nevada, as well as the effects of the drought, biologists say. As traditional feeding grounds have either dried up or been charred by flames, bears migrate to lower elevations and come into dangerous contact with humans in search of food.

“I can’t think of a worse situation for wildlife — bears running from fires and then being run over by cars,” said Fraser Shilling, director of the Road Ecology Center at UC Davis. “It’s a biological tragedy, compounded by the fact that humans are responsible for the climate changes that are setting the stage for these increasingly violent and deadly wildfires.”

Due to a lack of coordinated reporting, the number of bears hit and killed nationwide is unknown. But researchers from Caltrans and the Road Ecology Center are monitoring a 108-mile stretch of US 395 in the Eastern Sierra and say it suggests pregnant women and boys face extreme hardship.

“Since records of bear collisions began in 2002, we haven’t had a significant peak of collisions like in 2021,” said Katie Rodriguez, a senior biologist at Caltrans in Bishop, Inyo County.

Four bears were killed along the highway in 2019, and no dead bears were reported in 2020. But last year, 13 bears were hit by vehicles and killed – 10 in September and October, when the animals tirelessly hunt for food to feed before hibernation.

Prior to 2021, the highest number of bears hit and killed by traffic along Highway 395 was nine; that happened in 2007 and 2018. But biologists warn that bear body counts back then were far less accurate than they are now.

State biologists said six of the 10 bears encountered in September and October were female, two were male and two were of unknown sex. Two of the females, both of whom had cubs, were killed on consecutive days in the Walker River Canyon north of the city of Bridgeport.

Unable to fend for themselves, orphaned cubs stay close to their dead mother and make sounds eerily similar to crying human babies, biologists say. This was the case with two juveniles found on September 6th. They were caught and transported to a state wildlife facility in Sacramento and are expected to be released into the wild in the spring, officials said.

A bear clings to a tree trunk

A bear shortly after its release in Lake Tahoe as part of a coordinated trap, tag and haze operation between the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and California State Parks.

(Travis VanZant / California Department of Fish and Wildlife)

A cub found the next day near its dead mother, just a few miles down the road, “scattered and never seen again,” said Michael Brown, an environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

None of the bears killed wore a collar, and biologists believe they were among a untold number trying to escape the walls of flame and choking smoke from last summer’s catastrophic Tamarack, Caldor and Dixie fires.

Combined, the wildfires from July to October 26 destroyed nearly 2 million acres of prime habitat, leaving bears to seek new sources of food and water.

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According to Steve Searles, a local resident who has made a career as a “bear whisperer,” toward the end of the summer of 2021, “swarms” of displaced bears began marching into Mammoth Lakes — someone tasked with protecting the Ski Village from the animals .

“I knew these bears were from somewhere else,” Searles said, “because I made it my mission to know every bear in Mammoth Lakes from the day they were born to the day they died.”

Guided by a sense of smell 100 times better than humans, the newcomers were lured by the smell of dog food, koi ponds, restaurant dumpsters full of trash, and manicured lawns and gardens. Searles called them the “lucky survivors” of the fire-ravaged northern forests.

“But we will never know the number of bears that have been hit by cars, trucks and tour buses,” he said, “and then dragged themselves off the road and died in places not easily seen through rear-view mirrors.”

Caltrans biologist Rodriguez would not disagree.

“Several factors may be driving an increase in bear-vehicle collisions in the Eastern Sierras, particularly in September and October,” Rodriguez said, “including the need to eat more than 20,000 calories per day before hibernation, prolonged drought.” in typically wet habitats and wildfires wiping out seasonal food sources.”

But last year she added, “Black bears likely traveled further distances than normal to find resources, and as a result encountered roads and highways more frequently.”

Many bears on the move are pregnant females, desperate for food and water in unfamiliar terrain; In late December, the area was suddenly buried by a record-breaking 17-plus feet of snow.

Wildlife activists face a heavy emotional toll.

“To understand this situation, you have to put yourself in the head of a mother bear in total emergency survival mode,” said Ann Bryant, executive director of the nonprofit Bear Education Aversion Response League and a Lake Tahoe Basin resident for 35 years.

“Typically, black bears breed in the summer,” she said. “After that, a female’s fertilized eggs suspend development until implantation into the uterine wall during hibernation occurs in November and December. This cycle, called delayed implantation, ensures that the young emerge from their burrow in the spring when food is plentiful.

“But if a pregnant woman hasn’t gained enough weight, the eggs won’t implant and she won’t give birth to any young,” Bryant added. “This worries me because what we saw last breeding season was many female bears far from home, desperate for food and a den where they could give birth to a new generation of cubs.”

In the pre-winter season, bears typically eat 22 hours a day. Although born blind, nearly hairless, and no longer than 9 inches, females reach an adult weight of around 200 pounds and males are larger, with some exceeding 600 pounds.

Now scientists and wildlife conservationists are waiting to see if significant numbers of Mono County’s hibernating bears will welcome new arrivals in the spring.

“Many female bears in the Sierra Nevada were taken out of service last year by all forces working against them,” Shilling said. “It’s not unreasonable to wonder if these losses could continue to affect the Sierra Nevada black bear population for several years to come.”

Until now, California’s black bear population has been robust and healthy, nearly tripling in the last 25 years. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates there are 30,000 to 40,000 black bears roaming the state, the most in the state and twice the number in Montana.

To reduce the slaughter of bears and other wildlife important to the region’s ecology, culture and economy, a consortium of agencies led by Caltrans plan to build a $17 million network of safe passages that will create a ” Nearby vehicle-wildlife collision hotspot spans the intersection of 395 and State Route 203 between the communities of Crowley Lake and Mammoth Lakes. There, on average, Caltrans road crews remove the carcasses of a few black bears and 140 mule deer each year.

Meanwhile, state crews will continue to use earth movers to pick up the remains of bears, deer and other species killed by cars and trucks, dump them in dips off the highway and cover them with earth. Black bears are being killed on California roads in record numbers

Tom Vazquez

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