‘Big puppy dogs’ or ‘burglars’? A town braces for hungry bears awakening from hibernation

A view of cabins along snow-covered mountains.
Homes in Pine Mountain Club, Calif., where the black bears emerging from hibernation are invading.

Good morning. It’s Tuesday, March 19. Here’s what you need to know to start your day.

Coexistence or eradication? Hungry bears stir debate

The unmistakable signs of a likely very active bear season are unnerving: a door torn off its hinges, splintered windowsills, twisted metal siding, and muddy paw prints on the windows of a shed housing a ransacked refrigerator.

A bear rummages through a dumpster in Pine Mountain Club.
(Cody Miller)

Hungry bears emerging from hibernation pose a challenge for residents in San Emigdio Mountain, an area wildlife authorities call the “human-black bear conflict zone.” The balance between nature and urbanization is constantly colliding.

Some residents want to coexist with the mammals, while others want to see them eradicated, Times staff writer Louis Sahagún reported this week.

Human territory and bear territory are overlapping more and more


Urban growth, severe wildfires and drought have led to more bears moving into human-inhabited areas in recent years.

Tourist enclaves such as Lake Tahoe and Mammoth Lakes are hot spots for these bear encounters. But bears are now being reported in areas they never ventured 50 years ago, such as along the Central Coast and in the Transverse mountain ranges of Southern California, Sahagún reported.

And calls for wildlife assistance to Kern County Mountain Club authorities reached a record 563 in the fiscal year starting July 1, 2023. (That’s up from 319.) Most of those calls involve bears.

“Bears are a major problem here — and it’s getting worse,” Patrice Stimpson, patrol chief of Pine Mountain Club, told Sahagún.

A bear awareness community group reported an increase in bears entering people’s homes and sheds. They recorded 322 incidents in 2023. Additionally, the group documented 179 vehicle break-ins during the same year.

Living with bears in the area has necessitated a list of special precautions:

  • Keep vehicles locked with no scented items inside.
  • Avoid storing food or scented items in crawl spaces, sheds and garages.
  • Ensure the doors of homes and cars are always locked, as habituated bears can open them.

As development expands into Southern California wildlands, black bears can remain active year-round due to abundant accessible human food, garbage cans, gardens, homes and vehicles.


Officials say they are still grappling with how to address the lethargic, hungry bears.

There’s two kinds of people: Those who feed the bears and those who can’t stand them

In California, deliberately feeding a black bear is illegal, and penalties include a fine or jail time.

Still, residents like James Weinstock have incorporated feeding wildlife into their daily routine, including two bears he calls Cinnamon and Black. (This is despite a violent encounter: Upon finding a bear eating a sandwich in his house, Weinstock struck it with a baseball bat. The bear swiped back.)


James Weinstock prepares to feed bluejays


James Weinstock describes the time he was scratched on the arm by a bear


An electric fence hangs in front of Pine Mountain Pizza Company


Boarded up doors cover a city building

1. James Weinstock prepares to feed bluejays shelled peanuts on his front patio in Pine Mountain Club, Calif. 2. James Weinstock describes the time he was scratched on the arm by a bear he struck with a bat after it entered his home and began eating his lunch. 3. An electric fence hangs in front of Pine Mountain Pizza Company to deter bears from breaking through windows and doors. 4. Boarded up doors cover a city building after a bear tried to gain entry in Pine Mountain Club. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

“I love bears; they’re just big puppy dogs,” he told Sahagún. “Getting along with these critters is the right thing to do. It pleases the Lord.”

Vacationers staying in Airbnbs and other short-term rentals also reportedly entice black bears by tossing raspberries and bacon strips off the decks of mountain cabins.


Officials advise residents to report such incidents, but some fear that increased reports could disrupt lucrative income streams.

Vicky Kraft, an activist with the Los Padres Bear Aware group, says too many people feed habituated bears.

“If I had the power to do it, I’d remove the bears — all of them,” Kraft said.

Several bears have been illegally shot and killed

Distressing face-to-face encounters have led to several bears being shot and killed in Pine Mountain Club without proper permits from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

A $10,000 reward was offered for information about a person responsible for shooting a bear with a bow and arrow in 2022. Federal wildlife authorities have investigated reports of illegal bear traps set along neighborhood streets and Los Padres National Forest land.

Killing a bear, legally classified as a game mammal, without proper documentation is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year of imprisonment, a fine of up to $10,000 or both.


Residents have run the gamut of alternative methods of deterring bear intrusions.

Properties are outfitted with unwelcome mats with half-inch-long nails protruding from the fabric, positioned strategically at front doors and windowsills. Authorities have resorted to shooting bears in the rear with paintball guns as a deterrent.

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