How to BEAR-ware in Black Bear Country

Rebecca Fabbri, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Oakland Zoo
June 4, 2022

Seeing an American black bear can be a memorable experience, but we need your help to keep bears wild and people safe. Approaching, disturbing or feeding black bears is likely to have negative and dangerous outcomes for both bears and people. Feeding black bears not only poses a significant threat to humans and bear safety – it’s also illegal in California. Most black bear conflicts can be avoided by practicing basic bear safety guidelines.

American black bears are the only bear species found in California and range in color from blonde, black to cinnamon brown. They play an essential role in maintaining healthy ecosystems. Bears help with dispersing native plant and berry seeds through their foraging habits. Additionally, they clean up dead fish and animals and keep hornet nests in check. In most cases, black bears are not a threat to people, but they do deserve our respect and attention. It’s important for visitors and residents in bear country to remain vigilant.

The most common human-bear conflicts involve unsecured attractants, such as garbage and human food.

“Black bears are very smart and opportunistic with an incredible sense of smell,” says Peter Tira, California Department of Fish and Wildlife Public Information Officer. “Once they learn that they can get food out of a tent, cooler, or car, they’ll learn to search those out.”

About Oakland Zoo's Black Bears:

American black bears - Tejon, Cambria and Kern - at Oakland Zoo’s black bear habitat. Photo Credit Oakland Zoo; Steven Gotz

Four American black bears were brought to Oakland Zoo because of the most common threat these animals face—the human-wildlife conflict.

The mother sow, Cambria, and her three cubs, Kern, Pismo, and Tejon, became "habituated” to humans, often wandering the Pine Mountain Country Club area of Kern County in search of food. A habituated bear loses its natural fear of people, usually due to access to human food and garbage, which becomes addicting. These bears can become increasingly bold in their behavior, causing property damage and potential harm to people.

In June 2017, this family of bears brazenly entered an older woman's home, and Cambria inflicted a non-lethal injury on the homeowner who was trying to chase them out. Per state policy, Cambria was deemed a public safety threat. California Department of Fish and Wildlife considered the unique circumstances of the bear family and made an exception that resulted in keeping the public safe while giving the bears a second chance to live, by allowing them to be permanently placed at Oakland Zoo.

Not all bears that undergo encounters like this end up as lucky as Cambria and her cubs.

“With growing human populations and a large bear population, there are more human-bear conflicts now than ever before, leading to habituation and sows teaching problem behaviors to their cubs,” said Tira. “It comes down to all of us to be bear aware and follow precautions to keep people safe and bears wild.” 

In most cases, black bears are not a threat, but they deserve your respect and attention. When traveling in bear country and public lands, keep alert and enjoy the opportunity to see these magnificent animals in their natural habitat.

To show what happens at a campsite that isn’t bear-proof, we set up a mock camping scene in the American black bear habitat and filmed the bears’ reactions.

It's best to understand what bears need to remain wild and avoid bears whenever possible. You can do this by following bear safety advice when recreating in bear country.

Be mindful of where you set up camp

Keep a clean camp

Don't surprise a bear

If you see a bear

 For more tips on protecting yourself in a bear encounter, view this article by National Park Service

Wild American black bear. Photo Credit: U.S. Forest Service