Annette Graebner is reinforcing the French doors in her Honeydew home with plywood. Last January she returned from town to find the refrigerator ripped open, kitchen cabinets torn apart and broken glass covering the floor. An urban dweller would suspect a burglar. Graebner knew right away that it was a bear.
"After I cleaned up the glass, I called Fish and Wildlife," says Graebner. The state department, formerly known as Fish and Game, sent an agent to document the damage. A trapper came with a culvert trap (a giant metal tube used to capture bears alive), but after two weeks had no success.
When another bear arrived in April and began stripping the fruit trees close to Graebner's house and flattening the fence around her garden, Fish and Wildlife declined to intervene, saying they only responded to "real property damage."
Graebner is just one of many Southern Humboldt residents reporting an unusual amount of bear activity over the last few years. Some old-timers say that the white oaks are producing more acorns, meaning foraging bears are more active. Others say there are simply more bears. Dave Lancaster, a biologist at Fish and Wildlife, says that neither theory is correct.
"We haven't had a lot of calls about bears," Lancaster says. "It's actually been a quiet year. The bear population doesn't go through dramatic changes in one year's time, so there's no such thing as a 'big bear year.'"
But homeowners insist they are experiencing big bear problems.
"In the 35 years that I've lived here, I haven't dealt with bears as much as the last few years," says Claire Trower, Graebner's neighbor on Wilder Ridge. Last year a bear clawed open the door of her SUV and ripped up the car's upholstery to get to a sack of grain she'd left in the back seat. Fish and Wildlife said she was to blame for leaving the grain in a place where the bears could easily smell it. She was careful after that to always store the grain in a garbage can in her barn. This summer saw her repairing her barn door after another bear break-in.
Farther south in Piercy, Talia Rose says that the neighborhood fruit trees receive regular visits from bears — up to five in a two-week span at her own plum tree. "Their body types were very different so we could tell they were not the same."
Other SoHum residents report bears eating all the melons in their gardens, surprising them on hikes and running across the road in front of their cars. Yet another Wilder Ridge resident says that a bear has broken into their home twice, "climbing up the siding and breaking a window to eat the dog food."
In recent decades Fish and Wildlife has intensified its focus on wildlife conservation. Instead of employing a government hunter to shoot a nuisance bear outright, less extreme steps are initially taken. Landowners are encouraged to stow away or carefully clean items that might be attractive to foraging bears. Fish and Wildlife officials might attempt to "haze" a bear away from dwellings, or use a live trap to relocate it. Depredation permits, which allow landowners to kill (or hire a government hunter to kill) nuisance bears, are seen as a last resort, and are only issued if livestock is killed or injured, or a bear has entered a residence — and then only when "corrective or bear-proofing efforts have failed."
Much of the bear behavior that is reported falls short of that criteria, and even when it's warranted (such as in the case of Graebner's break-in) the culprit is usually long gone. Depredation permits have fallen steadily in the last decade. Eleven were issued in 2006. Only one was issued in 2011.
When a permit is issued, it almost always results in the bear's death. But neither depredation permits nor the preliminary measures seem to be deterring the kinds of incidents now common in Southern Humboldt.
Residents are wondering: If your dog food, grain or other edibles can't be kept safely in your home or barn or car, then where can you put them? And is this a problem that's going to get worse with time? While the black bear population does not rise dramatically from year to year, it has increased steadily since 1982, when Fish and Wildlife estimated statewide numbers at 10,000 to 15,000. The most recent statistics have that number at 25,000 to 30,000.
Shane Embery, a warden with Fish and Wildlife who also lives in Honeydew, says the problem is overpopulation not of bears, but of people.
"We've seen an increase in rural population in Humboldt County," Embery says. "Some of your neighbors who moved here five or 10 years ago might not be respectful. It's not a lack of natural food in the wild. It's an increase in easy food."
Essentially, less savvy, newer homesteaders in the hills of Humboldt County may be spoiling bears, leaving garbage out and training the animals that a quick-break-and-entry is a lot easier than spending all day under an oak tree.
Every fall the Department of Fish and Wildlife issues 1,700 tags to bear hunters in California, and Embery and Lancaster say that sport hunters play a role in maintaining the bear population. The season ends Dec. 29 or when all tags have been filled, whichever comes first. Last year hound hunting of bears was banned in the State of California, a change some think will influence the season.
"Now that it is no longer legal to hunt bears with dogs in California, far fewer will be killed each year in this state," says Jim Etter, a rancher in Petrolia. "I suspect their population will increase noticeably over the next five years or so."
Embery agrees, saying, "I suspect we will close the season without reaching quota."
The impact of the hound hunting ban will be clear at the end of the season. In the meantime, rural residents may have to stick with boarding up their doors, rinsing out their soda cans and offering to take their neighbor's garbage with them on their next dump run.