Fruitful & Multiplying : Officials say the state’s bear population is the largest in 10 years. The reason? Poaching is down and Ventura County’s avocado orchards are ripe for the picking.
Game warden John Castro was disgusted when he stepped into a bog at the lower Lion Campground in late June and found the decaying carcass of a female bear shot by poachers.
The gall bladder had been removed. So had the teeth and claws.
“The canines looked like they had been snapped off,” Castro said. “It was pretty grizzly.”
A gallbladder can easily fetch $50,000 in Asia where apothecaries use them to treat human stomach ailments and blood diseases. Teeth and claws are routinely used in jewelry.
A Newbury Park man has been charged in the crime that stands out not only for its wantonness--a 250-pound animal was killed for less than two pounds of parts--but also for its rarity. Officials maintain that poaching has declined sharply and they cite that as one reason the state’s bear population is the largest it’s been in 10 years, maybe the largest ever.
Officials estimate that as many as 24,000 California black bears inhabit the state, a growing number of them in counties like Ventura, which has lots of bears. Big bears.
The largest black bear killed in North America was shot in the western tributaries of Piru Creek. The year was 1990.
“He was big enough to cover a 4-by-8 piece of plywood,” said Loren Nodolf, an offshore oil worker, who shot the record bear during the fall hunting season. “He must have had six inches of fat on him. We estimated he weighed 800 pounds.”
Weight doesn’t count in record books. Trophy bears are measured by the length and width of their craniums, and in addition to Nodolf’s record bear, two other county bears had skulls big enough to be listed in Boone and Crockett Big Game Awards, the book of record for North American game trophies.
The individual size and overall numbers of bears is due, at least in part, to the 82,600 tons of avocados the county produced last year. Biologists report that bears are gorging themselves to obese dimensions on the calorie-rich fruit and reproducing with abandon.
“Yep, there are some exceptionally large bears up there with nice shiny coats,” said Morgan Boucke, a local wildlife biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game.
When high daytime temperatures cause avocados in Ojai and Fillmore to fall from the trees, bears from the surrounding Los Padres National Forest amble into orchards at night. By morning, their muzzles appear to be covered with guacamole.
Ernie Acosta, a game warden in Ventura County for 11 years, said irrigated orchards provide bears with a stable water supply and because the trees are pollinated by bees, a hungry bear can, after enjoying an avocado entree, take down an apiary for dessert.
In bear-think, orchards are like fast-food drive-throughs.
Bob Considine is one avocado rancher who doesn’t much mind the intrusions. The Ojai grower has 20 acres of avocados surrounded on two sides by the national forest.
Considine said that between 2% and 5% of the fruit normally falls from the tree before it can be harvested, making it unmarketable. That amounts to as much as 10,000 pounds in his grove alone.
“We try not to bother the bears,” Considine said. “Lots of ranchers get upset about it, but the loss to me is not more than I would normally have from seasonal drop. We kind of like the idea of having them in the grove.”
Ojai grower Roger Essick is another grower who gets along fine with his nocturnal visitors.
“We’re right against the national forest,” Essick said. “They don’t know where the boundary is, so they have a right to hang around. They’ve broken a few branches over the years, but it’s not a problem. We’re kind of happy to have them.”
Not all ranchers are such gracious hosts. Fish and Game issued five depredation permits last year in Ventura County, which allow people to shoot a bear that’s damaging property. None of the ranchers was able to get the larcenous bears in their gun sights.
The fall hunting season is a different story. Each year an average of eight bears are killed--hunters prefer the euphemism “harvested"--in Ventura County, and more than 1,000 bears are taken throughout the state during the season, which runs from October to December.
Simon Oswitch, vice president of Animal Emancipation, a Ventura animal rights group, sees it as a harvest of shame.
“We feel that it’s an anachronistic blood sport completely out of place in a society that’s already so violent that people are afraid to go out at night,” Oswitch said.
Ironically, Oswitch is the sort of person Marsha Vaughan is afraid of. Vaughan may be North America’s foremost woman bear hunter. She’s too modest to claim the title, but the bear she killed in 1990 above her Ojai home ranked 14th, the highest ranking for a woman hunter.
Fearing reprisals from animal rights activists, she declined to be photographed with her bear, which is displayed in her living room, frozen in mid step as if stalking the television.
The animal was so big, taxidermists had to use a grizzly bear mount, she said. The same was true of Nodolf’s bear, which is in a Wyoming museum. Despite an average cost of $3,500 for a full body mount, preserving trophies is something of a passion.
Nodolf keeps the record skull in his basement along with another osteal trophy--a baculum, the long, slender bone most carnivores have in their penis. It’s a collectible among bear hunters, some of whom have the baculum silver-plated and use it as a swizzle stick to stir their cocktails.
Animal right activists are stirred also.
“As far as I am concerned, it’s not only a question of whether killing harms the population,” said Michael Markarian, campaign coordinator for the New York-based Fund for Animals. “Hunters are harming each individual bear. We’re concerned about the pain each bear endures from recreational hunters.”
Mike Vaughan, husband and hunting guide for Marsha Vaughn, says people like Markarian rely on emotions rather than science. He calls them “nature fakers.” He counters that starvation and territorial battles among males, both results of overpopulation, aren’t very pleasant for the individual bear either.
“We have more bears now than 10 years ago. Definitely,” Vaughan said. “When I first started walking these hills with my dad, all you’d see were tracks and scat. I can go out now and see three or four bears in daylight.”
Anecdotal reports like Vaughan’s are part of the reason the Department of Fish and Game decided to commission a study on the distribution of bear populations in several coastal counties from Los Angeles to Santa Cruz.
Sandy Schultz, a researcher for the department, had volunteers place bait along 150 miles of trails and fire roads in the Ventura County backcountry. They were instructed to check the bait seven days later for signs of bear. Volunteers made note of the type of terrain and vegetation to determine what areas bears favor.
Mike Vaughan was one of the volunteers. He set out a bait line of canned sardines along the Gridley Trail above Ojai. After punching holes in the can and spilling the oil to attract the attention of bears, Vaughan fastened the can to a tree with a wire durable enough to keep animals such as coyotes from disturbing it.
“If a bear hits this, you’ll know it. They can destroy a rolled steel can as easy as an NFL lineman can shred an aluminum beer can.”
And hit the bait they did. Preliminary results showed that of all the counties surveyed, Ventura had the highest percentage of bear visitations.
That doesn’t tell Schultz how many bears are out there, but given what she estimates is the amount of land necessary to support a bear--and that’s not accounting for artificial food sources like avocados, which dramatically increase the amount of forage available--there are well over 100 of them in the county.
Whatever their numbers, the success of Euarctos americanus has been remarkable, especially in Southern California.
As recently as the 1930s there were virtually no black bears in the southern portion of the state. But because their only natural predator, the grizzly or brown bear, has been extinct in California since 1922, the highly adaptive black bear has been free to expand its habitat, said Doug Updike, a bear researcher with Fish and Game.
Colonization started in 1933 when park rangers banished 27 troublesome black bears from Yosemite National Park to the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains. Since then they’ve spread to the extent that one biologist includes them with coyotes as one of the few examples of a large mammal that’s thriving despite the impacts of civilization.
Habitat is an important part of the equation. Whereas grizzlies preferred lightly forested foothills and grasslands--the landscape favored for development--black bears like mountainous terrain where nary a strip mall intrudes.
The other big reason for the black bear’s success is a decrease in poaching, officials said. But recent arrests may point to an upswing in multimillion-dollar trade in bear parts, especially gallbladders.
A Hollywood businessman was fined $10,000 after prosecutors charged him in January with running an illegal hunting club to collect and sell the bear gallbladders, which they said could have been worth up to $600,000.
Then in late June a Rosemead man was arrested, culminating an 18-month investigation stretching across four states, after he allegedly bought 160 gallbladders from undercover agents.
Lt. Ed Watkins of the Fish and Game special operations unit said it’s the largest case he’s seen during his nine-year career.
All of this makes warden John Castro’s discovery of the poached female at Lion’s campground more disturbing, but Fish and Game officials are confident they have the matter in hand.
“The data strongly suggests that poaching is not a significant factor,” Updike said. “The biggest issue is the habitat one. As long as habitat is preserved, our model for the next 10 years shows the population bouncing along with the carrying capacity of the environment.”
That’s just fine with Nodolf, who’s out there looking for an even bigger bear than his 1990 record.
“I’ve seen tracks as big or bigger than the one I shot. My bear was only an 8-year-old. His dad might still be out there.”
The American Black Bear
Size: 4.5 to 6 feet long and 2 to 3 feet high at the shoulders.
Weight: 200 to 400 pounds for adults.
Coloring: Black to cinnamon brown, usually with a patch of white on chest. Face is always brown.
Range: In California, pine and hardwood forests and chaparral.
Food: Fruits, berries, acorns, grasses, roots, small mammals such as rodents, carrion, insects and even garbage.
Habits: Solitary and territorial, with a shuffling walk and a stride about a foot long. Adult males occupy areas of about 20 square miles and often kill off young males that approach on their territory. Females mate in mid-July every other year and give birth to one or two cubs at a time. If forage conditions are poor, the bears cannot reproduce for a year.
Hibernation: Hibernates from mid-winter to early spring.
Sources: California Department of Fish and Game; Fish and Game biologists; “Harper & Row’s Complete Field Guide to North American Wildlife, Western Edition”; “Western Forests,” by Stephen Whitney.
Tips for Keeping Nature’s ‘Eating Machines’ at Bay
Normally docile and easily frightened, black bears are becoming more aggressive in competing for food and territory, biologists said.
You don’t have to cancel your weekend hike in the backcountry, but if you’re frying a pan of bacon in a bear’s living room, be prepared for some uninvited ursine attention.
Conflicts usually peak from July through October, when bears are prone to eat just about anything to put on fat for the winter, said Glenn Stewart, a Cal Poly Pomona zoology professor who tracked Southern California bears from 1970 through 1990.
He said that during the summer, bears consume something like 20,000 calories a day. They are omnivorous eating machines, devouring grass, berries, acorns, avocados and the occasional picnic basket.
“They know what an ice chest looks like and they’ll go right to it,” said Morgan Boucke, a wildlife biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game in Ventura.
John Boggs, a recreation assistant at U.S. Forest Service’s Ojai Ranger Station, said most contacts are in the Rose Valley and along Sespe Creek. Campers frying bacon at the Lion Campground, a mile east of Rose Valley at Sespe Creek, have had to chase off the bears.
Boucke said a few tips can prevent an unpleasant bear encounter.
* Don’t make yourself smell too good. “Walking around bear country wearing suntan lotion that smells like a pina colada is probably not a good idea,” she said.
* Do not cook and sleep in the same area. Do the cooking as much as 300 yards away.
* Learn to identify tracks and scat. If you see a lot of either, that’s probably a bad place to cook dinner.
* Always hang your food at least 10 feet off the ground and 10 feet away from the trunk of the tree. A rope strung between two trees works well.
* If you see a bear on the trail, don’t run away. Wave your arms and make noise. It helps to carry some stones in your pocket to throw at the bear.
Stewart said young bears that are separating from their mothers and trying to find homes of their own are the ones most likely to come in contact with people. It was a young, 200-pound bear that mauled an Ojai boy last August as he slept at a camp at Barton Flats in the San Bernardino Mountains.
“Last year, with the bear incident, people were worried about them, so we had more bear reports,” Boucke said.