Southern California's bears have Yosemite ancestors

Los Angeles TimesAugust 31, 2013 


A mother bear and two cubs settle in a tree in Altadena, California, in May 2012. In 1933 six bears were relocated fom Yosemite to Big Bear Lake. Now, like then, officials have to find a delicate balance between the bears wild nature and encroaching humans. (Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times/MCT)


— On a mid-November day in 1933, seven men and one woman crowded around a pickup parked near Big Bear Lake, wooden crates stacked high in the bed.

The cargo came from Yosemite National Park, part of a pilot program that officials hoped would flourish in the forests of Southern California. The containers were opened and the group waited, a camera at the ready.

Then came the bears.

"One bear leaped from the open door of its cage, charged at the camera and when within a dozen feet of it suddenly sat down and quietly studied the strange contraption," a Los Angeles Times article reported, "allowing plenty of time for a picture before it scampered off into the woods." The six black bears that tumbled out of the crates and into the wild that day weren't just any bears. Along with 21 others sent south from Yosemite, they were the forefathers of the bears that roam the San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountains today.

Everyone knows Southern California's celebrity bears: Glen Bearian, whose appetite for frozen Costco meatballs helped him earn 10,000 Twitter followers, and Samson, who fancied avocados and splashing in Monrovia's Jacuzzis.

But these bears might just have mischief in their DNA: Their ancestors earned a one-way ticket south with high jinks of their own that exasperated wildlife officials and entertained tourists.

"If they thrive, they will become a real attraction to the thousands of visitors who spend summers and weekends in the mountain playgrounds," a December 1933 report by the state Fish and Game Commission read. "Their comical, clownish appearance and actions are a never-ending source of amusement to youngsters and adults alike." In other words, like father, like son.

The "bear pits" built in Yosemite in the 1920s and '30s weren't as glamorous as those in Yellowstone National Park, those had bleachers, but were popular just the same.

Rangers would dump trash on the platforms and encourage visitors to watch the bears feast; one 1938 park document notes that six to eight bears showed up at nightly feedings, except when the arenas flooded, "spoiling this evening feature."

"The emphasis was on visitor entertainment," said Steve Thompson, who heads Yosemite's wildlife management division.

"I'm glad I wasn't a ranger back then," he joked.

Both the humans and the bears grew bolder. Visitors tried to feed the animals themselves, and the bears resorted to unruly behavior in their search for dinner, raiding cabins and ice chests.

Enter J. Dale Gentry, a San Bernardino businessman who became the president of the state Fish and Game Commission.

At the time, there were no black bears in Southern California. As more bears flooded the Yosemite Valley, Gentry "expressed a desire" to bring some south.

"They were killing two birds with one stone," Thompson said.

The implications of the decision became increasingly noticeable as people flocked to the foothills, neighborhoods creeping higher up the hillsides and closer to the bears' turf. Wildlife officials had a new concern, one they still face today.

How do you balance the needs of the bears and the people? Marc Kenyon, who heads the state's black bear program, believes they would have wandered down to Southern California on their own. The mountains were an open range, and the state's growing bear population has spread to previously uninhabited areas, such as Monterey County.

"I think that all we did in the 1930s was speed up the process," he said.

No matter how long it would have taken them to trek south the result now is the same.

"When you have so many bears and so many people," Kenyon said, "you're going to have conflicts erupting."

Keith Miller had just stepped outside his Altadena home to get the paper one May morning in 2012 when he saw it: a cinnamon-colored bear that had been snacking on some leftover birthday cake thrown in the garbage the night before.

Miller did an about-face and started back for the house.

"I thought, 'What the hell?' " he said. "So then I turned around." The bear turned around too.

"I said, 'Whoa,' and I looked up into the tree and saw two cubs," Miller said. "I thought, 'I'm out of here. Feet don't fail me now.' " But he soon shrugged off the sighting and went to the gym. When he came back, reporters and sheriff's deputies were camped outside.

The bear and her cubs had settled down for a nap in a large oak tree curling over Miller's driveway.

Of the 28 bears caught in Yosemite for relocation, one died during the trapping and transport, but the rest found new mountain homes in sunny Southern California.

As officials hoped, the bears of 1933 thrived in Southern California.

The proof lies in research published by a University of California at Davis team in 2009. After analyzing teeth and gum tissue from more than 500 bears collected by hunters and researchers across the state, the team found that the DNA taken from the San Gabriel and San Bernardino animals were almost identical to those from the central Sierra Nevada, where Yosemite sits.

"The genetic similarity between Southern California bears and Yosemite-area bears was striking," Holly Ernest, who led the research, wrote in an email. "That was important evidence to indicate that the bears moved there in the 1930s survived and produced offspring and family lines that exist to the current time." But was it a good idea to move the bears south? Kenyon, the state expert, declined to answer, saying he didn't want to second-guess the decisions others made.

"I don't think anybody in the '30s anticipated the number of people and the human communities growing so fast in the area. That's been a challenge," he said. "Our bear population growing down there has also been a challenge.

"But I think that at some point they would have reached this point. If it's not a challenge for me, then it is for somebody two generations down the road from me."

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