From a black bear ambling through the urban Santa Rosa streets on a Sunday morning to a mountain lion that made a brief appearance near a trampoline in a Sebastopol backyard just weeks later, recent wildlife sightings have thrilled and alarmed residents across Sonoma County.
Many have expressed surprise over the presence of such large predators amid populated places, though wildlife officials say it’s merely a fact of life in the region. Wild animals have moved amongst us for millennia, but they have become a sensation as images of their daily lives proliferate on social media.
“Everyone loves to live in a green, wildland setting, but along with that type of living space, there are occupants that are already there,” said California Department of Fish and Wildlife Senior Environmental Specialist Conrad Jones. “They come and they go, but they’re there.”
Both animals are predators — lions are carnivores and black bears omnivores. But their appearance in town shouldn’t necessarily be cause for alarm, Jones said. People should avoid the temptation to approach wildlife, he said. Trash and food should be kept out of reach of hungry critters. Pets and livestock should be kept in secure enclosures.
And drivers should be vigilant as wildlife traverse roadways built through their habitat, Jones said. Motorist Colin Putney of Lake County was reminded of that obligation Tuesday afternoon in a flash of black fur that appeared before him as he drove around a corner of Highway 29 near Robert Louis Stevenson State Park.
Putney, 45, was headed to his job as a manager at Calistoga’s Bergson Hotel about 1:30 p.m. when a black bear ran down a hill and crossed in front of his car, he said. He hit the bear with the front right panel at about 50 mph, with his car coming to a stop 100 feet away.
“I was choking on smoke from the airbag and thinking ‘I’ve got to get out of this car in the middle of the road, I can’t get it started,’” said Putney, who has a scrape and bruises. “The next thing that went through my mind was ‘Is the bear OK? I felt really terrible — it was really, really hard for me. I’m a big animal lover.”
A state Fish and Wildlife official said the bear was limping but foraging for food before wandering away. Though bears are typically more active at night, it’s not uncommon to see them in daylight hours, Jones said.
It’s not clear just how many bears and mountain lions are in Sonoma County, and the total amount of reported sightings fielded by the Department of Fish and Wildlife through its online reporting system and by phone isn’t known, and many can’t be confirmed, Jones said. The recent reported sightings in Santa Rosa, Sebastopol and at a park in Windsor and have not been confirmed by the agency or the county’s wildlife specialist.
Mountain lions have ranges of up to 200 square miles, Jones said. One male was tracked by scientists roaming across 17,000 parcels of private and public lands, said Audubon Canyon Ranch wildlife ecologist Quinton Martins, principal investigator for the Living with Lions Project. The project is intended to identify priority habitats and key wildlife corridors and to promote ecosystem conservation. He’s placed tracking collars on seven mountain lions so far, and his research shows the animal’s diet is about 75 percent deer.