Black bears have been reported in the past few days in Big Trees Village out by Camp Connell and Dorrington on Highway 4, at Dardanelle Resort on Highway 108, and on Skyview Drive in Sonora.

They used windows to get inside at least three homes this past weekend, residents, property managers, and law enforcement said.

Whether there are more bears and more unsecured trash, or the current heat wave has put more bears on the move, or some other reason, the recent increase in reported bear encounters has prompted residents recently visited by a bear in Big Trees Village to remind everyone to make their trash bear-proof.

Jamey Payton said she and her husband were at home on Shoshone Drive in Big Trees Village about 1:30 a.m. Saturday with their dogs in their bedroom — a black labrador and a smaller shih tzu lhasa apso mix — and one of the dogs started barking loudly.

Payton said she thought it was her father who was visiting trying leave the house. Payton said her dad has early onset dementia and alzheimer’s, and he’d tied to leave earlier on Friday evening.

“I thought it was my dad trying to get out again,” she said.

She went to the living room-kitchen area near the front door and didn’t see anything. The front door was not open.

“Then all of a sudden I saw something in the window,” Payton said. “We have one of those AC units that you keep the window closed but there’s a plastic piece inside the window. That plastic piece was on the ground, the window was open, and there was something in the window.”

She thought it was her dad trying to crawl out, went to grab him, and right before she did, she realized it was the rear end of a bear.

“Literally on a stack of Bibles I thought it was my dad trying to crawl out the window,” Payton said. “I came within an inch of grabbing that bear’s rear end. I heard the bear grunt and I realized it wasn’t my dad.”

The bear had been in the house and its head and front limbs were out the window, with its front paws on a stack of wood outside, Payton said. She said she was glad it wasn’t her dad but she was horrified she’d nearly grabbed the bear. The bear kept going out the window and Payton said it was gone by the time she screamed.

‘Just yuck like mud stink’

The bear made quite a mess, on the walls and window sill there was “just yuck like mud stink,” Payton said. The bear, which she described as “probably a teenage bear,” did not get into the kitchen or the refrigerator.

The same bear broke into her neighbor’s house on Sierra Parkway about a half-hour later, Payton said.

The neighbor, Ann Sorensen, said she’s lived in the Camp Connell-Big Trees Village area 17 years, and she’d never seen a bear until early Saturday.

“It was so quiet, very stealthy, it was dark,” Sorensen said. “The bear came in a window and did not knock over any of my plants. This bear knew what it was doing. It came in looking.”

A security camera showed the bear first came to her deck at 1:52 a.m. Sorensen said she’s on crutches recovering from surgery and was sleeping soundly when she heard something.

“There was a noise,” Sorensen said. “I went out in the living room. I’m on crutches saying, ‘Hello, anyone here? I’m here’ and I had lights on.”

She decided to go back to bed but she grabbed her Smith & Wesson 9mm handgun. She put a six-round, pre-loaded magazine in the pistol, and she lay back down, thinking “Everything’s cool, help me sleep.” Ten minutes later she heard something again and it was clearly like somebody was walking inside her house.

It sounded like deliberate walking, Sorensen said. It sounded like two people “because the bear had four legs right? Now I’m shaking because I have to address this. I put my pistol in a leg brace and I walk into the hallway and said ‘Hey whoever’s there I have a gun’ and I look down and see dirt on the floor.”

Sorensen said she thought it could be a person, then she smelled the bear. It smelled like trash, like funky trash from the dump, so foul. She said she thought to herself, ‘I’m disabled on one leg and I’m not going to shoot someone and miss and have them attack me.’ So I’m going back in my bedroom and locking the door and calling 9-1-1.”

She said she was glad to have her loaded gun at the ready because deputies from the Sheriff’s Office took 45 minutes to get there. She said that funky stench she smelled could have been coming off a tweaker, somebody who truly stinks, and that person could have attacked her.

“I’m grateful it was a bear and not a human being,” Sorensen said. “If it was a human being I may have to lay that guy down and I would not want to do that.”

Sorensen said she waited for Calaveras County sheriff’s deputies to arrive and they walked through the whole house and around it, and they said, ‘You had a bear intrusion and it left you gift outside on the porch.’ It was a huge turd.”

She never saw the bear itself, but her security cams showed the bear departed at 2:12 a.m., 20 minutes after it appeared, and the funky garbage stench lasted for 24 hours inside her house.

Secure your trash

The bear had managed to push through an open screen window without tearing it, went down a hallway, went towards the kitchen, ignored cucumbers and tomatoes on a counter, ignored Sorensen’s pantry, and ignored her trash, too.

Sorensen said that’s in part because she takes bear abatement strategy seriously, so she keeps all her dry goods wrapped up airtight to reduce food odors, she tries to do the same with all her trash, which she keeps in a garage.

“That’s what they’re smelling for, food,” Sorensen said. “The bear couldn’t open the refrigerator-freezer but it put its paws on each side of the outside.”

Payton said Tuesday the experience early Saturday was scary and she can’t stop thinking what would have happened if she had grabbed the bear’s rear end when it was trying to get out her window.

“We just want to get the word out, everybody needs to stop leaving their trash out,” Payton said. “I do house cleaning and Airbnbs, so I’m conscientious when it comes to trash and bear-proofing places. We have a free dump. Take your trash to the dump.”

People should take bear abatement seriously like they do at Lake Tahoe and in Yosemite National Park, where bear lockers and bear-proof trash cans are located at many trailheads, campgrounds and day use areas, Payton and Sorensen said.

“Bears are saying ‘hey there’s free food here, come to Camp Connell, come to Calaveras County’ and we need to do something about it,” Sorensen said. “ We need to make sure people who rent out cabins are educated. We need to be teaching all visitors and residents about the need to protect bears by making trash bear-proof. A fed bear is a dead bear.”

More bear incidents

There were other reports on social media of bears trying to get into homes through windows in the Big Trees Village Property Owners Association area. The post included a photo of a garage door ripped open and trash spilling out on Chinook Way.

Then at 12:02 p.m. Sunday, the same Big Trees Village social media page people posted more bear news.

“A mother bear and two cubs were seen on Karock two nights ago,” the post states. “Please do not leave garbage out. If you are renting your home through Air-B&B or other rental agencies, please let your renters know they must take their trash to the dump or take it home. There has been dumping of garbage bags around the development which as encouraged our wildlife to come into the development. Note the bear prints!”

And then at 1:03 p.m. Sunday, the Big Trees Village social media page people posted about yet another bear in a home.

“Residents on Hiawatha in BTV called the sheriff's office to report a very large older bear with a gray face broke into their garage two nights ago but came back to their home last night and broke into their home through their kitchen window,” the post states. “The bear got into the home. Please note there are more than just a few bears in our area.”

In the Sonora area at 12:50 a.m. Saturday, a dispatcher for Tuolumne County sheriff’s deputies got a call about a bear trapped in a fence in a woman’s yard on Skyview Drive between Woods Creek and Shaws Flat Ditch. The bear was preventing the caller from getting into her house safely.

And at 3:08 p.m. Saturday at Dardanelle Resort, a dispatcher got a call about a large nuisance bear getting into campers’ stuff for the past week.

Black bear population has more than doubled since 1982

Sgt. Greg Stark with the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office said Tuesday his agency’s records division showed three reports of bear incidents in the past week and zero for the rest of the year.

A Stanislaus National Forest spokesperson said Wednesday forest personnel have responded to a few more bear encounter calls than in past years. One involved two men from Belgium and France riding 2019 Harley-Davidson motorcycles in June when a bear appeared on Highway 108 east of Long Barn. One motorcyclist struck the bear, the other motorcyclist swerved, and both motorcyclists crashed. The bear ran away. Both motorcyclists were transported to Adventist Health Sonora by ground ambulance and treated for minor injuries. The Department of Fish and Wildlife was contacted and responded to the scene but was unable to locate the bear.

"We are setting up bear boxes at all Calaveras Ranger District campgrounds, and the Summit/Mi-Wok ranger districts are placing them at each trailhead," Diana Fredlund with the Forest service said. "As they get more boxes they will install them at each campground, too."

State Fish and Wildlife people say California's black bear population has increased over the past 25 years. In 1982, the statewide black bear population was estimated between 10,000 and 15,000. Presently, the statewide black bear population is conservatively estimated to be between 30,000 and 40,000.

The current increase in bear activity and reported human-bear conflicts right now is due to seasonal changes as natural resources like food and water become more limited, summer temperatures remain high, and black bears are now entering or will soon enter a phase called hyperphagia where they increase caloric and food intake, and attempt to gain weight to prepare for hibernation, Vicky Monroe, a human-wildlife conflicts program coordinator with California Fish and Wildlife, said Tuesday.

Humans often contribute to increased conflicts with bears due to unsecured trash and other perceived or actual food sources like pet food and animal feed, and opportunities like chicken coops and access through open windows and garages.

For more information about the California Fish and Game Department’s statewide Black Bear Policy 2071 visit www.wildlife.ca.gov/Conservation/Mammals/Black-Bear/Statewide-Policy online.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.

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