As any old-timer will tell you, black bears are a common sight here in the woodsy foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains.
Just about every resident of Forest Falls and neighboring hamlets has a story about the bear who toppled the trash can or spooked the family dog.
But this year, encounters between bears and humans living on the edge of the wilderness are starting to scare people, and controversy has flared over the officially sanctioned action against two of the wayward bears: They have been shot and killed.
As usual this summer, the furry omnivores are flattening fences, stripping fruit trees, ransacking apiaries and chowing down on garbage plucked from trash cans and even steel dumpsters. A handful of other incidents, however, are less innocent.
In June, an Oak Glen woman watched a young bear push through her screen door and snatch some hamburger thawing on a kitchen counter. Also last month, a counselor at a Christian camp in Forest Falls was bit on the foot by a bear who entered the youth's tepee while he was asleep.
Although no serious injuries resulted from either episode, the state Department of Fish and Game concluded that those two bears were hazards and issued permits allowing hunters to kill the animals. The Oak Glen bear was destroyed soon after, and on Thursday, a long search for the Forest Falls bear ended several hours before dawn when the 160-pound female was shot after being chased up a tree.
Meanwhile, many mountain residents are outraged that authorities are invoking the death penalty for bears, with about 400 of Forest Falls' 1,600 residents signing petitions of protest.
Noting that the chance to see wildlife was a major feature attracting them to the foothills, critics say it is unfair to destroy the forest's largest denizens merely because they have become a nuisance to man.
"The way we see it, the bears were here first and we're the ones intruding on their territory," said Chris Campbell, 25, a 13-year resident of Forest Falls who believes that authorities should relocate, rather than kill, troublesome bears.
Moreover, Campbell and others contend that people are to blame for the animals' rising aggressiveness. The bears, they say, are lured into town by homeowners who carelessly discard garbage, providing a ready meal for the normally timid creatures.
State wildlife managers, who have dubbed the pesky animals "trash bears" or "beggar bears," agree: "We don't have a bear problem, we have a people problem," said Tom Paulek, a state fish and game biologist.
Paulek said residential growth in the foothills has created new food sources that naturally attract the bears. And some homeowners, charmed initially by their exotic visitors, even feed them, fostering a dependence that the bears eagerly adopt.
At a California Youth Authority camp in Oak Glen, for example, bears for years found a steady supply of goodies at a dump--called "the bear pit"--where kitchen workers deposited food scraps. The dump was closed in April by passage of a San Bernardino County ordinance forbidding the feeding of predatory animals, but camp Supt. Cynthia Brown said bears continue to waltz through the grounds and have prowled inside staff barracks in search of snacks.
"We had a problem with them breaking into vehicles for a while, and we see them sitting up in the trees all the time," said Brown, noting that one popular visitor was named "Big Red" by staff members.
Down the road at Pilgrim Pines youth camp, officials have reinforced dumpster lids with steel rods to combat a persistent bear problem, which includes break-ins at storerooms. Still, the animals are treasured by campers and staff members, who posted a snapshot of "The Pilgrim Pines Bear" along with a tuft of its black fur on a bulletin board.
This year, experts say, bears have probably found rummaging through trash bins all the more inviting because the continuing drought, coupled with a late freeze, has reduced their natural diet of berries, grasses and leafy shoots.
Moreover, the large population of bears in the mountains has made competition for habitat among the territorial animals keen, and some yearlings may find it easier to simply munch on watermelon rinds and other rubbish tossed out by humans.
"Bears are opportunists and if there is a garbage can available they will take advantage of it," Paulek said. "Initially, people think it's cute. But when he breaks in the kitchen window, it's not so funny any more."
Lou Mottern, a 20-year resident of Oak Glen, can attest to that. He was admiring some cubs in a tree one day when the babies' mother returned and let him know he wasn't welcome.
"She chased me all the way to my front door, and I was in stocking feet," Mottern said. But such incidents are rare, biologists say, and normally, making loud, high-pitched noises will frighten away a bear.
Despite their loyal following, black bears--which can also be brown or cinnamon-colored--are not native to Southern California. In 1933, a small population was trucked into two Southland mountain ranges from Yosemite National Park. In the San Bernardino Mountains, there are now an estimated 300 bears, all descendants of the 16 introduced 56 years ago.
Smaller than their towering cousins, the grizzly bears--extinct in California--average male black bears weigh 250 pounds and are really quite shy.
In Forest Falls, debate over the bear issue is the talk of the town. Besides the petition protesting the shooting, residents upset about the hunt attempted to drive the bear from the area with loud air horns. Some even tossed ammonia-filled balloons in areas where the bear was spotted, hoping to throw hounds off its scent.
On the other side of the issue are officials at the Forest Home Christian Conference, where the biting incident occurred. A camp spokesman said the decision to seek permission to shoot the bear was made after it made repeated forays into areas where small children live and play.
Recently, staff members began patroling the camp's grounds throughout the night, hoping to spot the bear. At 1 a.m. Thursday, it appeared, and was chased up a tree while hunters were summoned. A shotgun was used to kill the bear, which was about 3 years old.
The shooting was considered likely to spark a fresh round of protests among pro-bear residents.
"It's a big issue, because people who live up here love wildlife and don't want to see the bears killed," said Tom McIntosh, who runs a real estate firm in Forest Falls.
While Fish and Game Department biologists do not enjoy killing animals, Paulek said, relocating a problem bear is tough because the mountain range is "highly urbanized."
"If we take the bear somewhere else, like Big Bear, then it is likely to cause a problem for that community and those people would not appreciate it," he said. "The answer is education."