Helping Black Bears in our Backyard

Adrienne Mrsny, Conservation Specialist
February 1, 2019

The amazing thing about California is you can drive two to three hours and will be in a completely new ecosystem. That means that in our three-hour-away “backyard” there are black bears! Bears are often perceived as being either ferociously aggressive beasts or cuddly teddy bears, but either of these impressions are accurate. Bears will avoid humans when possible, and are incredibly intelligent and adaptable, which has helped them survive in modern times.

photo: Steven Gotz

We are only starting to understand how intelligent bears are. New research shows that they are able to identify the difference between numbers of dots, which means, they can count. This makes sense, because as solitary foragers they need to be able to make quick food decisions. Also, bears are incredibly perceptive to threats to their survival. Bears have begun adjusted their child rearing behaviors to cope with hunting laws that prohibit targeting females with cubs, by mama bears extending the time that they keep their cubs with them. Although this decreases the amount of cubs they have, it increases their individual survival rate and could eventually lead to an evolution in bear behavior. Additionally, bears are incredibly quick on land (run 30 mph), agile climbers and can swim long distances. Ultimately, we should be in awe of these animals that have been around since prehistoric times and are working hard to live alongside us.

photo: Steven Gotz

Though the California Black Bear numbers are seemingly healthy, with humans continuing to expand further into the forests and bear habitats shrinking and becoming more fragmented, human-bear conflicts have begun to rise, particularly in one of our closest bear habitats, the Lake Tahoe region. Forest fires and droughts have begun to transform California’s ecosystems, forcing bears to leave their remote habitat in search for food and water. Black bears are opportunistic omnivores, are highly adaptable, and can learn how to find food in almost any environment. Their sense of smell is 100x better than humans, with exceptional long-term memory and color vision that helps them locate food. The most common “foods” that draw bears into human populated areas are: unprotected trash cans, dirty BBQs, bird feeders and pet food. Once bears start associating human areas with food, they can escalate to breaking into houses and cars in search of a tasty smell,leading them to be labeled “nuisance” bears.

photo: Steven Gotz

The black bears you see at Oakland Zoo’s California Trail were once nuisance bears and through Oakland Zoo working in partnership with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife the bears were able to be relocated to their current forever home. When you are visiting our bear exhibit, test out our bear proof trash cans and you will see how sturdy it must be to keep bears out. Even the handles on the bear proof trash cans have been designed for only human hands to access because of how clever bears are. In the end we are all a part of keeping bears safe and wild and this can be done by taking steps to stop them from becoming nuisance bears.

photo: Steven Gotz

Fortunately, there are conservation groups in place that are working to keep black bears out of conflict in our closest bear habitat, Lake Tahoe. The BEAR (Bear Education Aversion Response) League has been working in the Lake Tahoe region to keep bears out of trouble since 1998. Working with visitors and residents they strive to reduce human-bear conflict and promote “living in harmony with black bears”. With their volunteer base they spread the message of being “bear aware” through education, rent out bear scare mats to break the human food seeking cycle, facilitate a 24 hour hotline for bear sightings and often act as first responders to human-bear conflicts where they try to resolve the issue non-invasively. Oakland Zoo and the Conservation Society of California is dedicated to supporting conservation work that is taking positive steps forward. We are proud to be partnered with the BEAR League to keep the bears in our backyard wild.

How can you help?

·        Stop by the Action Tent at California Trail (from January –March 2018) and decorate a postcard! Share your gratitude with those living with bears and choosing to do so peacefully. These postcards will be handed out by the BEAR League as they go out on calls to resolve human-bear conflicts.

·        Adopt a Black Bear Plush from our gift shop! With each bear purchase you are supporting the BEAR League in their efforts to ensure we all live in harmony with these native bears.

·        Knowing what to do when you visit bear country and how to keep your car and rental safe from bears can save the life of a bear by keeping it from becoming a nuisance bear!

From now until March join the BEAR league and Oakland zoo in Taking Action for Black Bears!



Oakland Zoo works with BEAR League

Bear League

CDFW and Black Bears

People and Carnivores

Get Bear Smart Society