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The Malibu Bear Can Be a Good Neighbor, If We Let It

Camera trap image of the black bear along Malibu Creek | Photo: National Park Service

"Bears are made of the same dust as we," wrote John Muir, "and breathe the same winds and drink of the same waters." For Westside Angelenos, Muir's words ring a bit truer following the discovery earlier this month that a black bear (Ursus americanus) has taken up residence inside Malibu Creek State Park.

On August 2, National Park Service biologists reviewing photos stored on a camera trap placed in the park to monitor wildlife movements were surprised to find one, dated July 26, that showed an animal that's not been known to maintain a year-round population in the Santa Monica Mountains since the 1800s, a time when grizzly bears (Ursus arctos) were being actively driven out of the only state in the Union to feature a bear on its flag.

In the intervening decades, smaller black bears have recolonized parts of the Golden State, including the Santa Susana Mountains near Simi Valley and the San Gabriel Mountains near Pasadena. And while its at least possible that other black bears have survived the risky trek across the 101 to land in the Santa Monicas and remained hidden, this is the first hard evidence in more than a century that a bear is making a home for itself there.

While wildlife advocates celebrate this as evidence of a healthy ecosystem, others may worry about their safety given the presence of another large carnivore in the area. The good news, according to Andrew Hughan, a spokesperson for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, is that hikers and campers stand a fairly low chance of ever seeing the bear in the first place.

"Black bears in California are practically afraid of their own shadow," he says. "They don't know that they're at the top of the food chain." Indeed, it's only thanks to a remote camera that we even know that the bear is there. While it's reasonable to assume that it got there by crossing the 101, nobody knows exactly where or when. "It could have been there for months," says Hughan.

Still, a few things should be kept in mind. Campers should think about using bear-proof coolers, which is a smart idea anyway for keeping the raccoons and other more common critters out of your snacks. Despite the vanishingly small potential for hikers actually running into the bear, it remains a possibility. "If you see a bear, scream, take your jacket off [and wave it around], yell at it," explains Hughan. Most of the time, the bear will run away, especially since it appears to be alone, without cubs. When people do have negative encounters with bears, it's often because they accidentally find themselves between a mother and her cubs. (And for that matter, it isn't clear whether the Malibu bear is male or female in the first place.)

California's black bear population is quite healthy despite the fractured, disturbed habitats it calls home. And Malibu Creek State Park seems as if it should have enough food, water, and shelter to keep this bear happy – if not entirely sexually fulfilled.

But if the bear is unable to find sufficient sources of food and water in the more natural parts of the park, which given the ongoing drought is at least a possibility, then it may be motivated to look elsewhere, lured by the smells of fallen fruit and tasty barbecues at homes in Malibu and other local neighborhoods. And if that occurs, it could land itself in hot water.

To that end, two concerns are worth bearing in mind.

The first is Highway 23, which bisects the mountains as it moves from the 101 down to the beach between Malibu to the east and Point Mugu to the west. Motorists should already be aware that there are wild animals in the mountains – deer, coyotes, mountain lions, bobcats, raccoons, foxes, squirrels, birds, and everything else – but now there's another large mammal to add to the list, and vehicle-wildlife collisions are nothing to sneeze at.

Indeed, when a bear showed up near the 101 in 2014, it was struck and killed on a freeway offramp. “I’m very sad that a bear got killed. I never thought we had to be bear aware,” the driver told local news site The Acorn.

Second, if the bear does find itself drawn towards developed areas, the odds of a human-bear encounter will obviously increase. With current events clearly in mind, Hughan warns that under no circumstances should anybody attempt to interact with a wild animal, even if the intention is to help. "If you see the bear, don't feed it. Don't give it water. Do not put it in the back of your SUV to rescue it," he says. Also? No selfies.

Finally, a confession: I've long advocated that we resist the urge to give a proper name to our most famous resident wild animal, the mountain lion P22, both to underscore the fact that animals are not people (it's actually the other way around) and because I can't decide which is worse: "Puma Thurman" or "Griffy"? But since there is no ongoing scientific study of Santa Monica Mountains bears, I've been calling our latest Malibu-dwelling celebrity “MaliBoo-Boo.” Here's hoping he (or she) finds his (or her) Yogi.

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