September 29, 2010
California is now one of the top-producing black bear states in the Lower 48. And hunter success rates keep clawing their way up each year. (August 2009)
The bear left a print that measured 5 inches from side to side across the front pads. The track was a day old, but there was a chance the dogs might take the trail. We set the dogs loose down an old logging road. The chase was on. We stopped after two miles, at a creek swollen with snowmelt. The hounds were up the hill. Their howls drifted in and out on the wind. They treed a bear.
Author Gary Lewis used a .45/70 Marlin Guide Gun to take this bear in 2008. The bruin measured 6 feet from nose to tail. This black bear's pelt was black, but it's more common in the High Sierras for the pelt to look like chocolate.
Photo courtesy of Gary Lewis.
I shoved four .45/70 rounds into the tube, jacked one into the chamber, then eased the hammer down, setting the Marlin Guide Gun's hammer at half-cock. We crossed the creek and pushed up the hill toward the noise of the dogs.
At 100 yards from the tree, we could see the dogs running in circles, manzanita bushes shaking. For a moment, we thought the bear was on the ground, but then we saw it, halfway up a small Ponderosa pine.
"He's coming down," someone yelled. The bear spun to the other side of the trunk with only his legs showing on my side.
There was a pack of redticks, blueticks, Walkers and Plott hounds beneath the bruin, six humans nearby and a good chance someone would get hurt. I found the bear as he turned to negotiate a branch on his downward slide. In a moment, he would be in the dogs. Rifle up, I thumbed back the hammer and pulled the trigger.
The bear shivered at the impact and began to drop. I hit him two more times as he fell through the branches to make sure he was finished when he hit the ground.
With the dogs leashed, we looked at the bear. The boar that left the 5-inch track measured 6 feet from nose to tail and 6 feet 6 inches from paw to paw. It was jet black with a cream-colored V on its chest, an uncommon black-colored black bear in California's Sierras.
According to senior wildlife biologist Doug Updike, California's black bear population has increased dramatically over the past 25 years.
"In the early '80s we had about 10,000 bears. In the last 30-plus years, we've seen a three-fold increase," Updike said.
Recent estimates put California's bear population between 30,000 and 35,000 animals spread over 52,000 square miles. Today, the state ranks among the top black bear destinations in the country.
In 2007 (the last year for which data was available), 1,861 bears were taken in California. Of that number, more than half of the successful hunters used trailing hounds, while 31 percent took their bears while hunting deer.
Archery hunters accounted for 8 percent of bears harvested. On average, successful hunters spent four days in the field. Twenty-one percent took their bears on private land. Overall success was 7.6 percent.
Two subspecies, the northwestern black bear and the California black bear, inhabit the state. The crest of the Klamath Mountains separates the cousins. 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.
Close to half of the statewide bear population make their home along the North Coast and into the Cascade Mountains. Here, bear densities range from 1.0 to 2.5 bears per square mile. Most of the bear habitat lies within areas that are owned by the public or by private timber companies.
The highest specific bear densities are in northwest California in the Klamath National Forest, the Marble Mountain Wilderness and the Trinity Alps Wilderness. 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 a nirvana for a bear.
"It is a great place for an archer who wants to take an incredible pack-in trip. Deer hunters that go in there often report seeing twice as many bears as they do deer. It is loaded with bear food," Updike said.
Bears are opportunists and they make good use of mast during the season, but deer fawns can be another source of protein.
Rick Copeland, with Wilderness Unlimited in Hayward, oversees the game management on more than 40 California ranches. WU's best bear ranches are in Mendocino, Trinity and Siskiyou counties. Wet weather closes some ranches before the season closure. Copeland has seen bear numbers increasing on his leases.
"Bears have been becoming an increasing predator problem concerning deer. They have always been hard on the hogs," Copeland said.
To find bears you have to follow the feed. 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 watches all the food sources throughout the year. "We're doing a lot of private-land hunting on various timber company lands."
Bears harm the trees when they eat the cambium layer beneath the bark.
In the summer months, Lockwood said they find the bears in the manzanita eating the berries. In late September and October, they are in the oaks. In November and December, they move down by the rivers to get the spawned-out salmon.
Success rates run highest for houndsmen. Lockwood, like many other outfitters in the state, employs dogs to put his clients behind a bear.
"It seems like bear numbers are increasing all over the state," said Lockwood.
One timber company north of Eureka estimated it had around 1,200 sows. That means 600 new bears a year! Lockwood said.
"Bears, overall, are just booming in California," Lockwood said. "The best thing they could do is give us a spring season."
The state has no plans to begin a spring hunt. The concern is that there is no way to ensure that sows and cubs won't be shot, according to Updike of the DFG.
Lockwood hunts Mendocino, Humboldt, Del Norte counties and the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.
In the coastal areas, hunters find a lot of black-phase bears that are leaner, quicker and nastier, said Lockwood. East of Interstate 5, bears show various colors.
For the hunter looking for solitude, Lockwood recommends packing into roadless areas.
"Bears get pressured by guys with dogs and also by deer hunters," said Lockwood. "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 bears are going back into the Yolla Bolly Wilderness."
If you can find the food source, that's where they can be. Bears are nomadic, like hogs.
Fall colors are striking in the Tahoe National. Snow caps granite peaks. Vine maples turn 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 you'll see cinnamons, blondes and even brindles. 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 lives in the entire range of the Sierra Nevadas, from Plumas County south to Kern County. Over two-thirds of the bear habitat falls within land that is administered by the U.S. Forest Service.
Updike recommends that bear hunters pay particular attention to the Tahoe, Plumas and Eldorado national forests. Elevations range between 4,400 feet and 8,100 feet above sea level.
Andrew Gregory, owner of big-game outfitters Deadwood Industries, 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 bluetick and redtick hounds. His hunts are oriented around primary food sources.
"In our hunt area, we find bears eating acorns, apples, elderberry, grasses (in the spring), fish, manzanita berries, grubs and deer fawns. They prey heavily on deer fawns," Gregory said.
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 or some variation thereof. Very few bears are black.
"An average adult bear runs about 250 pounds, but every year we get at least one that weighs 600 pounds or more," he said.
Mature boars square between 5 feet and 7 feet (measured nose to tail). Pelts in late October, November and December are well furnished with long winter growth.
The week before I arrived to hunt with Gregory, hunters tagged bears that weighed 350, 400 and 600 pounds. The day before we arrived, hunters bagged a 710-pound bear that was weighed on highway scales. Gregory reports a success rate of 100 percent.
On our first day, we treed a sow with two cubs. The second day, we treed and tagged a 2-year-old boar with a light chocolate pelt. The third day brought me that 6-foot, 300-pound-plus boar with a black pelt and a white V on its chest -- the one I decided to pull the trigger on.
It was the first black black bear they'd seen in six years.
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 because there are few roads. Also, the communities here are growing and are opposed to hunting for the most part.
"Decent bear habitat is not a very 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, black bears in the western/southwestern region can be found from Santa Cruz County to San Diego County. Some of the biggest bears in the state are reported in the San Bernardino National Forest.
After the California grizzly became extinct around the beginning of the previous century, black bears began to colonize Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. Biologists helped them by relocating animals from trouble areas to less-populated country. Bears can now be found in the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains. Population density in this region is thought to average less than .25 bears per square mile.
There may not be as many bears, but Southern California bears are some of the biggest in the state. One reason may be that they do not always go into their winter sleep.
"If food is available year 'round, the bears don't seem to go into their long-term lethargic period," Updike said.
Donald Geivet is vice president of Ranch Operations for Tejon Ranch near Lebec. In this region, black bears feed on juniper berries, chokecherries, serviceberries and gooseberries, among other fruits. Geivet hunts only the biggest bears and he focuses on the food sources, specifically, the berries and the acorns.
"We usually start the first of September," he said. "We see a lot of breeding activity in the late summer and that is when the berries are ripening and bears are easier to pattern."
Geivet watches the roads for tracks, specifically for the tracks of the largest bear -- 9 inches from front to back. "It ensures that you're looking at least at a 350-pound bear or better," he said.
The bears that hunters take on the Tejon Ranch are mostly cinnamon in color, but once in a while, they see a chocolate. Southern California hunters also take a few true black-phase bears.
"The really big bears don't like to tree," said Geivet. "They'll bay up and get their backs against the brush and fight the dogs. Typically, they'll rest and fight for 30 minutes and then take off again. It can be a very physically challenging hunt. They don't go in nice places."
Geivet believes there are more bears in Southern California than there were a few years ago.
"Over the last five years, bear numbers have gone up considerably," he said. "We just started bear hunting about 10 years ago. Prior to that, we just
didn't see enough sign. Maybe we're just paying closer attention, but I don't think so. I think it is food related."
It is all about the food.
A bear's travels revolve around its food sources. And these change on a weekly basis. Think in terms of specific foods at specific intervals in the season, and then hunt where those foods are in abundance and keep your face in the wind.
Once, most hunters sought bear secondary to deer hunts. Today, more than at any other time in recent memory, black bears are plentiful in California. More and more hunters are keying on the groceries, following the feed and targeting Ursus americanus as a primary species.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
To order a signed copy of Lewis' hardback, full-color Black Bear Hunting, send $26.95 (includes S&H) to Gary Lewis Outdoors, P.O. Box 1364, Bend, OR 97709.