Bear necessities

Drought conditions, lack of habitat may be driving bears into more urban areas

To avoid seeing one of these around your house, keep your garbage secured and pet food indoors.

To avoid seeing one of these around your house, keep your garbage secured and pet food indoors.

photo by Kathi Taltos via Thinkstock

California’s ongoing drought has an endless list of consequences for humans, from browning lawns to sinking farmland. But the dry conditions might also be driving wildlife—particularly bears—out of the foothills and into more urban areas.

Patrick Foy, a captain with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), said the bear that recently attacked a woman and her dog in Magalia was attracted by the smell of garbage, but admitted that “we have bears showing up in places we have never seen them before.”

“Last summer, there were two bears—one was in Colusa and one was in Atwater, and in both of those communities the people who had lived there for 50 years had never seen a bear in their lives.”

But a lack of drinking water probably isn’t why bears are coming out of the foothills, Foy said. They’re more likely motivated by a lack of foraging and habitat.

“Everything is drying up and the insect populations are lower,” he said. “The drought really does affect the quality of habitat, and these animals might graze a bit farther to find the same number of calories to sustain them.”

The Magalia incident occurred on June 22 at about 11:30 p.m., when a bear showed up outside a woman’s home on Carnegie Road. The woman heard a ruckus in her backyard and her 9-year-old golden retriever started barking, so she let it outside.

“Immediately, the dog got wrapped up in a vicious fight and she then went out herself,” Foy said. “The bear at some point hit her and it bit into her shoulder and it scratched her in a couple of places. They were not life-threatening injuries but they were very serious with respect to the fact that it bit into her pretty good.”

Both the resident and the dog have received treatment and are currently recovering, Foy said. As of Monday (June 29), Foy said CDFW is still searching for the animal. A separate incident, June 9 in Oroville, resulted in a black bear being shot and killed by CDFW officers when it wandered too close to populated areas.

CDFW officials say they believe the Magalia incident happened because the bear smelled a food source in the resident’s garbage and climbed over her fence. Now the agency is reminding residents, especially those in foothill communities such as Magalia, to secure garbage and always bring pet food indoors.

“There is a bear that knows it can find a source of food within human garbage,” Foy said. “That is learned behavior. They’ll figure that out and they’ll come back. It’s really important for the next several weeks, if not months, to really go to great lengths to secure garbage.”

Foy recommends freezing smelly waste, such as bones and chicken scraps, and taking garbage out only on the day it will be collected. Also, pet food should not be kept outside—pets should be fed inside the house or in the garage to avoid attracting bears and other wildlife, such as raccoons and coyotes.

While a person is, statistically speaking, far more likely to be attacked by a domestic dog than a bear, mountain lion or coyote combined, encountering wildlife is always possible, Foy said. If it does happen, he advises people to raise their hands above their heads and shout aggressively to try to scare the animal away. Foy also recommends adding a whistle to children’s backpacks so they can signal for help.

Because animal encounters are possible in foothill communities like Magalia, the department has created a website,, to provide information and suggestions on how to coexist with wild animals and prevent attracting them.

“That’s our goal—to help the citizens of California coexist with bears,” Foy said.