Far fewer black bears roam SLO County than estimated 5 years ago, study finds

A black bear pauses while foraging for food on the side of Hi Mountain Road near Lopez Lake in October 2008.
A black bear pauses while foraging for food on the side of Hi Mountain Road near Lopez Lake in October 2008. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

San Luis Obispo County’s black bear population is only one-tenth of an estimate made in 2010, according to a landmark genetic study that bolsters arguments against opening a hunting season on the Central Coast, even though officials say the count doesn’t provide a complete picture of the local bear population.

The research, commissioned by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife in 2013 and published in 2015, has determined that only 101 black bears live in the county, a huge decrease from the 1,067 estimated by the department only five years earlier. The results were recently released because of a public information request filed by Los Padres ForestWatch, a Santa Barbara-based nonprofit organization.

Marc Kenyon, who was Fish and Wildlife’s black bear program coordinator at the time of the study, said the study doesn’t provide a truly authoritative count of the local black bear population because the department faced logistical constraints and was denied access to a major portion of San Luis Obispo County land.

“We still sampled pretty adequately where we could, but there’s always danger in extrapolating to areas where we could not sample,” Kenyon said.

Nevertheless, the new count validates the position of opponents who decried a plan by Fish and Wildlife in 2009 and 2010 to open a bear hunting season in the county.

“What we’ve said all along is that when we’re making important decisions on our region’s wildlife, those decisions need to be based on good science,” said Jeff Kuyper, executive director of Los Padres ForestWatch, which opposed the proposals. “I can’t see how they would justify allowing hunting at any level when you have 100 of something over such a large area. There’s no justification to allow a hunt. It could have a detrimental impact on bears to grow their numbers in the county.”

But Kenyon said the department found that the 1,067 estimate in 2010 was incorrect just a few weeks after the number was made public. He said the number was inaccurate because they were working off of two different data sets and accidentally double-counted, and the more accurate estimate put the number at 673. Because the hunting proposal was shelved, the new number did not become public.

The numbers were based on expert opinions, bear population densities in similar habitats and habitat models, Kenyon said.

“Think of it as taking two different pictures of San Luis Obispo County where they overlap about 60 percent, and trying to make one whole picture,” Kenyon said. “The overlap is where we did the double counting.”

“Remember, it’s still a model. It’s not a direct count,” he said. “What we’re essentially modeling is a bear habitat, and what that essentially means is that could be up to 673 bears,” if the habitat was at capacity.

No hunting plans

For now, Fish and Wildlife’s plan is to continue to monitor black bears in San Luis Obispo County, said Jesse Garcia, the department’s black bear program coordinator.

Garcia said there is no formal effort in the county to track the bears or conduct another survey like the one that was done a few years ago, but the department will watch for the presence or absence of roadkill and take nuisance reports. He also said that there are no plans to reintroduce a hunting proposal in the county.

“In light of the study, we plan to use similar techniques to obtain local scale information on abundance and genetics on bears in other locations throughout the state,” Garcia said. He added that the department hopes to conduct similar studies in the San Gabriel Mountains, the San Bernardino Mountains and the Warner Mountains.

“The goal is to begin obtaining information on bears at a local scale,” Garcia said. “We want to know how many bears we have totally in the state, but we have bears at different density levels throughout the state. It’s good to know, ‘OK, there are more bears there. What does that translate to?’ 

Kuyper was happy to have more accurate numbers.

“The study just confirmed what a lot of wildlife experts and concerned residents have been saying all along, which is that we need the data to guide this decision,” he said. “Now we have the data, and we know how to act accordingly and make the right decision for our region’s wildlife.

“They’ve been sitting on these results for a couple of years. They don’t seem to be chomping at the bit to get another hunting season out there,” Kuyper said. “They also realize it’s a very controversial proposition with the community, so whether they intend to do something like propose a bear hunt in the future, that remains to be seen.”

Bears on the Central Coast

Historically, the Central Coast was home to grizzly bears, and black bears didn’t inhabit the area at all. But once the grizzly bear went extinct in California in the 1920s, black bears started moving into the region from the southern Sierra Nevada. Both grizzlies and black bears are omnivores, which means they eat grasses, berries, insects, fish and mammals.

The study, which also included Monterey County, was “the first large-scale genetic sampling of black bears in the state that we’ve ever done,” Kenyon told The Tribune in 2013. It provided a far more accurate sample than what had been estimated before.

According to the study, California’s black bear populations have been growing steadily for more than 20 years, with approximately 10,000 bears living in the state in 1982 and an estimated 34,000 bears living in the state as of 2015.

The research came in response to efforts in 2009 and 2010 by the Department of Fish and Wildlife to create a black bear hunting season in San Luis Obispo County. Based on its initial numbers at the time, the department argued that the local population was large enough to support hunting.

The proposal, however, was met with public outcry, drawing more than 10,000 comments in opposition, according to a Tribune story in September 2010.

The county Board of Supervisors and wildlife groups condemned the proposal, calling it an ineffective way to manage bear populations and saying that the department had no accurate population data to scientifically determine if the population could support hunting.

As a result, Fish and Wildlife put the hunting proposal on hold in order to do more research.

At the time, Eric Loft, the department’s wildlife branch chief, told The Tribune that the department planned to further assess what it believed was a growing bear population on the Central Coast.

Kenyon told The Tribune that the study would help them make informed planning decisions that are in the bears’ best interests.

The research

In 2013, biologists set up the new study to better determine the actual bear count in the county, using a method called “noninvasive genetic capture-mark-recapture.”

Over eight weeks, biologists set up 54 sampling stations on private land or in Los Padres National Forest.

Each station consisted of two strands of barbed wire strung around an enclosure of trees. In the middle of the enclosure was a pile of debris, over which scientists poured a mixture of fermented cattle’s blood and fish meal. A second lure, which rotated between either honey, raspberry or anise oil, was suspended above the center of the enclosure.

When bears entered the enclosure to investigate the smells, their hair caught on the barbed wire. Fish and Wildlife crews checked the stations every seven to eight days, carefully removing the bear hairs from the wire and placing them into labeled envelopes.

In San Luis Obispo County, crews ultimately collected a total of 187 samples, which were sent to the Wildlife Genetics and Population Health Laboratory at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine for genetic analysis. After the samples were extensively tested, scientists determined that there were about 101 bears in the county. The study recommended that scientists continue population and genetic monitoring, but also said the findings “do not warrant additional recommendations.”

“These studies allude to that (that there could be more bears), but because we didn’t gain full access to suitable habitat in San Luis Obispo County, it’s difficult to fully answer that question,” Garcia said.

“We estimated about 100 bears, but had we been given access, we might have estimated more,” Garcia said. “We might not know at this point.”

Kenyon said that based on the study, it appears that bears are just starting to “colonize” Monterey County, which is good for the bears, but maybe not so much for people.

“I hope we can work with the communities there to help them prepare for bears being in their backyards,” he said. “Bears can create a bit of a problem when people aren’t aware.”

Despite the updated bear counts, Kuyper of Los Padres ForestWatch plans to remain vigilant.

The Fish and Wildlife Department could always come back with another hunting proposal, he said, and if so, “we would scrutinize it like we did with the other two attempts to make sure it’s a good, scientifically sound way to manage the region’s wildlife.”

Gabby Ferreira: 805-781-7858, @Its_GabbyF