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As bears move into Sonoma County, wildlife advocates seek to keep them safe, wild

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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.

There also have been numerous sightings of ursine drifters in neighborhoods around Sonoma County over the past decade — everywhere from rural west county enclaves like Occidental and the outskirts of Sebastopol to west Santa Rosa, Wikiup and even central Healdsburg.

“We’re trying to get ahead of the bears moving in,” said Sugarloaf park manager John Roney.

Bears are often most visible in late spring and early summer, as juvenile bears, 1 or 2 years old, leave their mothers for the first time, or in autumn, when bears eat ravenously in preparation for their winter slumber, experts said.

“It seems like, in the last three years, that we’ve received reports of bears closer to urban centers,” said Stacy Martinelli, who works as a state wildlife biologist in Napa and Sonoma counties. “We had a bear incident in Napa earlier this year. There was a bear sighting in Rohnert Park this summer, and then we just received a report last (month) off the town of Sonoma.”

Though bears remain relatively rare compared to neighboring Mendocino County, the grapevines planted across Sonoma County present a potentially dangerous lure to the animals. The county also is rich in compost production, beehives, orchards and other potential lures that have drawn bears into sometimes fatal trouble in more northerly regions.

Martinelli said there was a recent report of a pair of bears getting into neighborhood garbage in Timber Cove and, about six weeks earlier, a similar incident in Fort Ross. There also was a bear in a Guerneville garage a few weeks back.

What’s obvious for park managers — controlling trash, food storage and everything associated with eating — is also true for anyone who lives in the urban/wildland interface, though the cost of these preventative measures in parks can be particularly high, especially at campgrounds, they said.

“It’s not cheap, and that’s why it’s really important to be strategic about where we invest,” said Hattie Brown, natural resources manage for Sonoma County Regional Parks.

But the costs of not acting can be high, as well.

The collaborative is trying to prevent property damage, but also the kinds of losses that caused California land owners to kill 73 black bears last year and take out permits allowing them to kill at least 199 more throughout the state, according to state Fish and Wildlife data.

Mendocino County property owners have obtained depredation permits allowing them to kill 13 bears for nuisance behavior and property damage just this year, though only six animals have been brought down, an agency spokesman said. More than 100 permits were issued in Mendocino County in the previous five years, though far fewer bears were actually killed.

The animals have taken chickens and sheep, gotten into fruit trees and grapes, damaged fences and other property, spokesman Ken Paglia said.

Three were issued in Lake County this year, as well as one in Napa County.

Members of the collaborative hope by cultivating what Walla-Murphy calls “bear culture,” local residents will learn to avoid behaviors that give bears easy access to trash, food, vineyards and the like — instead adopting practices and tools like electric fencing and sheep dogs to keep bears away from temptation.

“I think most people want to know that bears have a chance to live here,” Parkman said. “That’s what this group can do.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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