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Humans threaten bears in San Bernardino National Forest

August 11, 2009 |  6:52 pm

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When a bear decides it's a fine idea to hop onto a picnic table surrounded by people, something clearly has gone wrong. But officials say it's not the bear that is to blame.

In fact, the bear that forced the closure of a picnic area next to San Bernardino National Forest's busiest trailhead on July 7 had simply adapted to a quick and easy food source: hot dogs and other human fare left out -- sometimes intentionally -- by picnickers and area residents. 

"People were leaving a lot of food unattended; they weren't properly throwing it away in the bear-proof cans. There was even reported cases where people were intentionally feeding the bear," said John Miller, deputy public affairs officer for the U.S. Forest Service. "What we have is ... a human behavior problem."

Once bears learn to associate human scent with easy food sources, they are more likely to venture into picnic areas, according to Jeff Villepique, associate wildlife biologist at the California Department of Fish and Game.

Picnickers have reportedly enforced the behavior by tossing food at the bear and getting up close to take photos.

"The bear has pretty much lost its fear of humans," Villepique said. 

Although the bear is only about a year and a half old and weighs about 110 to 120 pounds, Villepique said, it could still pose a threat to picnickers who refuse to surrender meals or to infants who happen to be sitting too close to food.

American black bears have been known to attack humans to eat them. A 74-year-old woman in Colorado who had been leaving food out for bears was killed outside her house Friday. Her body had been partially consumed by bears, authorities said.  

If the San Bernardino bear doesn't learn to stay away, Villepique said, officials most likely will have to euthanize it.

The Forest Service and Department of Fish and Game plan to patrol the picnic area near the Vivian Creek trailhead until after Labor Day. Officials have set up two new bear-proof dumpsters, posted warning signs and made attempts to educate the public. The area reopened Saturday, and the bear has not turned up again. Villepique said that's a good sign.

"Both species are happier if there's some space between us," he said.

-- Amy Littlefield

Photo: A young black bear foraging in the Falls Picnic Area caused the closure of parts of San Bernardino National Forest in July. The area reopened Saturday, but officials fear the bear may return, having lost its fear of humans after being fed by picnickers. Credit: California Department of Fish and Game

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