The first night the bear came into Bob Smith's back yard, in Fieldbrook, it tumbled a few of the small-time beekeeper's hives. Flattened them and ate the honey and bee larvae. Then it moseyed over to Smiths' neighbors' houses, all within a mile or so of the Fieldbrook Family Market, and rumbled garbage cans, trampled fences and smashed up a chicken pen. Smith put his hives back together and rigged around them some bright lights and noise-making stuff -- cow bells, wind chimes and other things that rackety-clang, plus a boombox that blared all night.
The second night the bear came, it trashed one more of Smith's hives -- it was too far from the noisemakers and lights. Smith called the California Department of Fish and Game to ask for a depredation permit -- a permit to kill the bear. A DFG official told him he could have a permit only if he had documentation proving livestock and property damage by the bear, and only if he had already provided adequate protection of his property -- specifically, an electric fence -- which the bear had breached.
"So I went out and spent $400 for an electric fence and put it up," Smith said over the phone Tuesday morning. But some hives were still unprotected. "On the third night, the bear came back and rumbled those," Smith said.
The bear wandered farther into the hills that night, to a home where, about a month ago, a different bear -- which has since been "dealt with" -- had killed three dairy goats, two of them pregnant, said Smith. There, it smashed a pig feeder and a rabbit pen and wreaked assorted other havoc.
"So the fourth night I was out in my back yard, sitting in a chair with a rifle across my knees and a spotlight in my hand, waiting for the bear," Smith said. "And at one point I heard a bunch of dogs barking on Gross Street, where three nights in a row they had their garbage trashed and fences flattened. I went in to watch the 11 o'clock news, and then I came back out and spent the night on guard duty 'til 6 a.m. The bear never came back."
But a neighbor called him to say there'd been gunshots at around 11:15 p.m. Was it him? Did he kill the bear? "Wasn't me," Smith said.
The thing is, added Smith, this isn't just business as usual. At least not in downtown Fieldbrook. "In the 35 years I've been here, in a typical year there'll be a couple of bear sightings in town. I know we've had some peak years of bear activity, but never in 35 years have I heard of bears killing goats, sheep, chickens, ducks, rabbits, geese."
Nuno (pronounced "Noon") Amaral, manager of the Fieldbrook Family Market, said over the phone Tuesday morning that everybody's talking about the bears. "We just had a customer this morning who said his garbage cans got hit last night, up on Tip Top Ridge, about five or so miles from here."
Amaral paused to talk to a customer. Then he said into the phone, "Over on Crockett Crossing last week, a bear broke someone's windows out in their car." He mentioned Smith's beehives, and the killed dairy goats. Then he put the customer on the phone: Eli Beerkamp, who was waiting for a sandwich from the deli -- yes, in fact, the "Hot Eli" turkey and swiss that is named after him. Beerkamp said he figured the bears came out of their semi-hibernation state this spring to forage for fresh new plant growth, only to find scant pickings. "Since we had such a late winter, and all that rain, the fresh new growth came on particularly late this year," Beerkamp said. "And the bears, if they find nothing to eat, then they go for the trash cans."
Beerkamp said a friend of his was charged by a black bear in the Trinity Mountains this summer, but not attacked.
Another Fieldbrook resident, Jamie Crowell, said by phone Tuesday he'd heard there was a large crop of bear cubs this year. A bear recently bent a metal deadbolt off his chicken shed, busted down the door and stole a 50 pound sack of chicken feed. Now he's got a live trap -- like a Havahart trap, but bigger -- from the DFG set up. Crowell said he always keeps his place trash-free. And in the past, that's been enough. "But it's definitely different this year," he said.
Smith, the beekeeper, suspects that some people living in the hills aren't that careful. "And I've heard rumors that people are feeding bears because they're ‘cute,'" he said, with disgust.
According to the DFG's website, in 2009 in Humboldt County the agency issued three depredation permits, and those three bears were killed. In 2008, it was two permits and two bears killed. The biggest year in recent history was in 2005, with 27 permits issued and 12 bears killed. This year, said the DFG's Dave Lancaster, the agency has issued about 10 bear depredation permits so far, and two for lions. But Lancaster, the DFG's lone wildlife biologist for the Humboldt-Del Norte North Coast Unit, said that's not "high."
"This year's pretty normal," he said Monday evening by phone. "Every summer's busy. Every year chickens get killed, every year goats get killed, every year people call me to say a bear pooped in their yard."
He poo-poohed the theories of a late winter. Most bear problems are caused by exposed garbage and unprotected orchards, livestock and animal feed -- including bird feeders, and the seed on the ground beneath them.
"Most bears that go after livestock have been allowed to get into the garbage before that for some time," he said.
You have to take proactive measures, he said: Get a big dog; bring in the livestock at night; hang the feeder high and attach a tray to it to catch the seed; and put up an electric fence -- properly, with about four strands, no more than a foot apart, and the bottom wire no more than a foot from the ground.
"People routinely ask us to relocate a problem bear," Lancaster said. "We used to do that, a long, long time ago, but not anymore. Some people just want the bear to ‘have a happy life' somewhere else. Well, moving a bear into another bear's territory does not make ‘a happy life.' Most people, when they find out we don't relocate bears, want us to kill the bear."
But that's the last resort. Cutting off the bear's human-provided grub is the first.