As bears move into Sonoma County, wildlife advocates seek to keep them safe, wild
Aaron Bennett's thinking goes something like this: Black bears had long since claimed territory in the Anderson Valley lands where his parents established Navarro Vineyards decades ago, so when the family planted pinot noir at high elevation in the mid-1990s, it was the humans who would have to learn to share.
That's why he, his parents and sister so willingly tolerate the nighttime visitors to their vineyard, even supplying a playful Winnie the Pooh soundtrack to a compilation video they've posted online documenting hungry bears roaming through the grapevines in recent months.
“I grew up on the ranch. I see the bears just as cohabitants of the land,” said Bennett, 41.
The bears eat a ton or two of grapes each season - perhaps as much as $10,000 worth. It's a sizable hit, but “it's not the bear's fault that we put pinot noir on the hills,” Bennett aid.
But even he acknowledged his view of the situation is not one that's universally shared.
Data from California's Department of Fish and Wildlife reflects a sometimes adverse human-bear relationship in Mendocino County and other rural North Coast counties, where the bear population is particularly dense.
But that could change. And with the increased presence of bears around the wild edges of Sonoma County in recent years has come a budding movement to prepare for their expansion south, in a bid to keep them wild and safe.
The newly formed North Bay Bear Collaborative is the product of conversations going back several years, when early signs began to indicate that what had been mostly transient visitors were beginning to settle in year-round.
The aim is to help humans adjust to their new neighbors and head off any conflicts.
“In my personal way of looking at it, this group is the liaison between the bears and the people in our area,” said retired California state parks archaeologist and Sonoma Valley resident Breck Parkman, who was instrumental in forming the organization. “The bears were here for a long time, and they went away because of us. And now they've started slipping back in.”
Bears are shy and mostly shun proximity to people. But it's often up to humans to make sure they don't create “nuisance bears,” those involved said.
The collaborative's mission includes public messaging and outreach to teach people how to live among bears safely, including guidance on avoiding the kind of attractive nuisances likely to lure wild animals into neighborhoods, where they can cause damage and become habituated to human sources of food.
A key focus is helping to safeguard food production activities like vineyards, orchards, chicken coops, composting and honeybee hives - undertakings common to Sonoma County.
Another is data collection and mapping to get a better handle on the changing local bear population, including, when financially feasible, DNA analysis from hair and scat samples to determine genetic linkages.
The consortium also will prioritize best management practices and improvements at public parks and open spaces, like bear-proofing food storage and garbage receptacles, to avoid leading big, furry beasts into trouble at night.
“We're not in a situation like Tahoe at all, but the population of bears in California is rising,” said Meghan Walla-Murphy, a wildlife ecologist, tracker and independent consultant who is leading the effort. “We want people to be bear savvy and bear aware.”
Participants in the collaborative include representatives from California State and Sonoma County parks, Pepperwood Preserve, Audubon Canyon Ranch, the Sonoma Ecology Center, which operates Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Walla-Murphy said the aim is to cultivate awareness and promote action on the front end of an ongoing expansion of the black bear population, currently estimated by Fish and Wildlife at between 35,000 and 40,000 animals statewide.
Sonoma County was once dense with California grizzly bears before hunting and habitat loss whittled away the population until all that was left was the image on the state flag. Today, the county is at the southern tip of the black bear's range, though the population here remains light.
But in the forested mountains to the north and up along the coastline reaching toward Oregon and across the northern part of California, larger populations roam and reproduce, sending their young in search of separate territories.
Some have gradually pushed down through the Coast Range and the Mayacamas into Sonoma County.
Wildlife cameras have captured an increasing number of black bears creeping into the back country of parks and open space preserves in recent years.