Black Bear on the Pacific Coast - California

By Gary Lewis

Gary Lewis Books and DVDs

With mild temperatures and abundant food sources, bear habitat is ideal along the Pacific Coast. There are many places to pursue Ursus americanus, but Washington, Oregon and California offer some of the best opportunities in North America. From the beach to the Great Basin and beyond, we help you find some of the best places to hunt in each state.

CALIFORNIA

According to Senior Wildlife Biologist, Doug Updike, California's black bear population has increased over the past 25 years. 

"In the last 30-plus years, we've seen a three-fold increase," Updike said. Recent estimates put California's bear population at about 30,000 animals spread over 52,000 square miles of habitat. Today, the state ranks among the top black bear destinations in the country.

To hunt bear in California, you have to wait till fall. In 2010 (the last year for which data was available), 1,503 bears were taken. 45 percent of successful bear hunters used trailing hounds, while 29.4 percent took their bears while hunting for deer. 

Two subspecies, the northwestern black bear and the California black bear, inhabit the state, geographically distributed by the crest of the Klamath Mountains. Variations in terrain, water availability and vegetation types allow biologists to divide populations of black bears in three habitat categories: North Coast/Cascade, Sierra and Central Western/Southwestern.

California North Coast and Cascades

Close to half the statewide bear population is found along the North Coast and into the Cascades. Population densities range from 1.0 to 2.5 bears per square mile. Most of the bear habitat lies within areas owned by the public or private timber companies.

The highest specific densities are in northwest California in the Klamath National Forest, the Marble Mountain Wilderness and the Trinity Alps. Because these areas have huge expanses of land between roads, the hunt lends itself to the hunter with a pack on his back.

Here, the coastal influence and Sierra habitat types come together. The result is miles of mast-producing forest, what Updike calls ‘nirvana' for bear. 

Rick Copeland, with Wilderness Unlimited (www.wildernessunlimited.com) in Hayward, oversees game management on over 40 California ranches. WU's best bear ranches are in Mendocino, Trinity and Siskiyou counties. 

"Bears have been becoming an increasing predator problem concerning deer," Copeland said. 

Manzanita berries and acorns are the primary food sources for bears feeding between 800 feet to 6,000 feet above sea level in the Shasta, Trinity and Six Rivers National Forests. Trinity, Shasta and Siskiyou counties produce the most animals.

Tim Lockwood, of Lockwood Hunting Services (www.lockwoodhuntingservices.com), watches food sources. "We're doing a lot of private land hunting on various timber company lands. Bears harm the trees (eating the cambium layer beneath the bark). In the summer months we catch them in the manzanita eating the berries. In late September and October we find them in the oaks. In November and December, they move down by the rivers to get the spawned-out salmon," Lockwood said.

For the hunter looking for solitude, Lockwood recommends packing into road-less areas. 

"Those bears are getting pressured by guys with dogs and also by deer hunters. Houndsmen travel a long ways, but they stay in roaded areas. Most of the game moves into the areas that are hard to get into. A lot of those bear are going back into the Yolla Bolly Wilderness."

California Sierras

Fall colors are striking in the High Sierras. Granite peaks are capped with snow, the vine maple turns red, purple, and orange. Oaks shine yellow and apples glow in the morning sun. Even the black bears come in colors. A chocolate pelt is most common, but cinnamons, blondes and even brindles are available. The most uncommon black bear pelt in these parts is black. 

Black bear populations are less dense (between .5 and 1.0 bears per square mile), but 40 percent of the statewide population inhabits the Sierra Nevadas from Plumas County south to Kern County. Updike recommends that bear hunters pay particular attention to the Tahoe National Forest, the Plumas National Forest and the Eldorado Forest. Elevations range between 4,400 feet and 8,100 feet above sea level.

Andrew Gregory, owner of Deadwood Industries (www.deadwoodindustries.com), makes his home in the town of Truckee, in the heart of some of the Sierra's best bear hunting. Gregory's preferred hunting method is behind his blue tick and red tick hounds. 

A five-week period from the end of October into December finds the bears moving from food source to food source as temperatures drop. The best fall food sources include acorns and manzanita berries. Apples are a favorite in some areas.

Gregory says the bears in the Tahoe National Forest are almost all color-phase animals: brown, cinnamon, blonde. 

For the spot-and-stalk hunter, the Lake Tahoe Basin might be an overlooked gem. "There is an exploding number of bears there that have little to no pressure. This is a difficult area to run dogs in as there are few roads. The communities are growing and opposed to hunting for the most part. You have little pressure and giant bears!"

Central Western/Southwestern California

"Decent bear habitat is not a very far distant ride from anywhere in the state," Doug Updike said. That might come as a surprise to most residents of southern California. 

Though they make up less than 10 percent of the statewide population, bears can be found from Santa Cruz County to San Diego County. Some of the biggest in the state are reported in the San Bernardino National Forest. Population density is thought to average less than .25 bears per square mile.

California manages bear hunts by regions and counties. Seasons vary according to zone. Opening dates in Deer Zone A come in mid-August, while the season may not begin till November in another zone. In most cases, the bear season opens with the general deer season (in August or September, depending on the region) and continues through the last Sunday in December. For more information, click on www.dfg.ca.gov/wildlife/hunting/bear.

California's bear habitat has always been some of the best in the Lower 48. More and more hunters are keying on the groceries, following the feed and targeting Ursus americanus as a primary species.



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