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Kicking off bear season in Sonoma Valley

Kicking off bear season in Sonoma Valley

By Teri Shore, Volunteer, North Bay Bear Collaborative

The black bears are here. Over the past five years, more and more black bears have shown up on wildlife cameras rambling throughout the back country of Sonoma County and the North Bay. Recently, bears made the news when ambling into backyards and towns such as Cotati and Sebastopol in search of food. Whether you love them or fear them, it’s now time to learn how to live with bears and keep them wild.

That’s why a bunch of bear lovers recently gathered at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park for a training by local wildlife experts with the North Bay Bear Collaborative. We were there to volunteer and learn how to help conduct field research to find out more about our growing bear population. This was the kick-off for the second year of the bear DNA project to analyze genetic samples from bear hair and scat found by experienced trackers and volunteers.

The North Bay Bear Collaborative is a working group of agencies, nonprofit conservation groups, landowners, and individuals committed to being proactive liaisons between humans and bears. Its mission is to mitigate future challenges that may arise from the North Bay’s increasing black bear population. It is hosted by the Sonoma Ecology Center. “Black bear population and range in Sonoma and Napa counties seem to have increased over the last few years,” said scientific lead Meghan Walla-Murphy. “But how many, and where they are and where they are coming from is still a mystery.” Better understanding of the bears is essential to protecting them and preparing people for their presence among us.

Last year, the DNA sampling found evidence of several individual bears roaming across multiple study areas in the Mayacamas Range between Sonoma and Napa valleys. The wildfires across the county cut the effort short as only four of the total 16 areas slated for the bear study were surveyed. This year the goal is to complete at least 12 additional locations.

Sitting in the rustic amphitheater at Sugarloaf as the sun warmed the morning and a flock of cedar waxwings flew into an overhanging oak tree, we learned the fine points of taking samples from bear scat and hair to prepare us to go out in the field in the coming months. Teams of four to six people will join with experienced leaders familiar with bear tracks and signs for four days at a time to cover plots that are about 4,000 acres in size. Carrying GPS, wildlife cameras to install, and collection bags, we will face heat, poison oak, ticks, and brush while hiking cross-country into bear habitat. At the training, we saw both bear and mountain lion scat samples to get a sense of what we’ll be looking for.

We also learned that black bears are usually scared of people and mainly interested in eating, and most of what they eat is vegetarian—plants, berries, insects. Unlike grizzly bears that lived here for centuries but are now gone, the black bear rarely confronts or attacks humans. If they see you, they run away. The best way to keep them at bay and prevent them from turning into Yosemite or Tahoe bears is to keep your trash secured and don’t leave food, including pet food, outside.

The training was conducted by Walla-Murphy and Stacy Martinelli, who is with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), which is funding part of the study. Sonoma Ecology Center Research Project Manager Wendy Hayes and Sugarloaf Ridge State Park Manager John Roney coordinated the training. Martinelli, who designed the study with colleagues at CDFW, said: “This pilot study combines government, nonprofit, and most of all, citizen scientists to increase our knowledge of our local black bear populations in order to keep the bears wild and both bears and humans safe.”

Each DNA sample costs $140 to be analyzed at U.C. Davis. Right now, there is little dedicated funding for the actual collection, training, and field work. So, if you are bear curious or just love bears, the best way to support the bear DNA study and the North Bay Bear Collaborative now is to sponsor a sample for $140 or donate any amount you can at