REGIONAL The sighting of a black bear in East County last week has grabbed the interest of many residents, and it may be the first such sighting in many decades.
The first reports of a large animal, possibly a bear, were made to the Oakley Police Department (OPD) around 8 a.m., Friday, June 4. The animal was spotted in the vicinity of Delta Vista Middle School. Residents provided officers home surveillance video that confirmed the presence of a bear wandering the neighborhood in the hours before dawn.
“Our officers have not located the bear, nor have we made contact with anybody who has actually physically seen the bear,” the OPD said in a social media posting dated June 4. “We do however believe it is quite possible for the bear to still be in the general vicinity.”
According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the population of black bears is believed to number between 30,000 - 40,000, though that estimate is called conservative.
It is unknown when a bear was last seen in Contra Costa County. A 2010 article in the Mercury News referenced a bear that was struck by a car in Orinda in the 1930s. The story states that officials at the time believed the bear to have been captured in the Sierras as a cub and kept illegally in captivity before an escape that led to it getting struck by a car. An internet search revealed no other references to bears in the last century.
Mike Moran of the East Bay Regional Park District said that bears were once common in the area. He related a story of Jeremiah Morgan, for whom Morgan Territory is named, claiming to have killed 30 grizzly bears in a single month. While Moran believes the tally to have been exaggerated, there is evidence that the region once supported a large bear population.
“I went to a presentation by a National Parks (Service) expert on grizzly bears, brown bears,” Moran said. “He was saying that through the historical record, the San Francisco Bay Area and going up into the Delta was probably, in his opinion, the heaviest population of grizzly bears on the planet before the Gold Rush. This was the place to be. It was a mild climate with year-round food and plenty of space. That was his hypothesis, and it was pretty well backed up.”
The bear in this case is a black bear, not a grizzly bear. The last documented grizzly bear in California was killed in 1924. Ken Paglia, public information officer with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife does suspect that the bear in question is a young male.
“In general, when you find a wild animal in an urban place, it’s often times a young male,” Paglia said. “They are more likely to be out searching for new territory’
There are different opinions among the experts about where the bear came from. Paglia said that a CDFW biologist speculated the bear traveled from the north to south.
“Our scientist thought the bear might have come from north of Berryessa Hills – an area that was burned out by wildfires last year and didn't get the rain it usually gets to regenerate the food resources,” Paglia said. “If you think about it that way, the bear wouldn’t have the food resources that it usually does and would have to go in search of new sources.”
Seth Adams, land conservation director for Save Mount Diablo, suspects that the bear came from the opposite direction.
“The likelihood is that a bear came up from the south – from the Tehachapis or the area south of Monterey – and wandered over to the Diablo Range,” Adams said. “That’s one of the cool things about a 150-mile intact wildlife corridor – the Diablo Range. It’s a 150-mile long wildlife freeway. Animals definitely go up and down it and it’s only crossed by two freeways.”
No matter how the bear got here, it has been spotted in Oakley, Knightsen, and most recently in Discovery Bay. The OPD advises people to keep their distance if they do encounter the bear and call law enforcement. Paglia said CDFW’s goal is not to intervene unless a conflict develops between the bear and people.
“Don’t mess with it and be happy that we live in a place with incredible wildlife,” Adams advised.