Little critters like raccoons, deer, jackrabbits, foxes, squirrels and birds scurry past the home of 62-year-old Columbia resident Gwen Gee every night.
But about a week ago, Gwen Gee woke up in the morning to a grayscale camera view of a lumbering black bear.
"I was a little surprised," she said in a phone interview with The Union Democrat on Thursday. "He wasn't mischievous, just kind of walked around, maybe drank some water, but he didn't make a mess or anything. I think he was just checking out the place."
And the pass-by didn't happen out in the dense, forested wilderness or up in the high country. It happened on the walkway outside of her home on Airport Road — just next door to Columbia Elementary School — at about 2:30 a.m. Sept. 28.
"I've been around some black bears. It was quite large, but it just seemed just curious," Gee added, a semi-retired land surveyor who occasionally works with the Tuolumne County Surveyor's Office. "I say, respect wildlife. Don't be antagonistic to it, try not to make human contact. You never want to piss off a bear."
At 8:11 p.m. on Sept. 29, a black bear was spotted at North Stewart and Cowan streets near downtown Sonora, according to Sonora Police Department call logs.
A second caller said she almost hit the bear near Sonora High School as it walked onto the campus.
On Oct. 2, a caller on Skyview Lane in Sonora told the Tuolumne County Sheriff's Office about ongoing bear problems and wanted to know who she should notify if her bear-permitted neighbor shot it.
At 7:36 a.m. on Oct. 3, a bear was reported on Oakside Drive and headed toward Hope Street, also just outside of downtown. The bear, which wasn’t causing problems and reportedly "wandering down the street," was said to have been seen by residents multiple times in the last few days.
Sonora Police Chief Turu VanderWiel said bear sightings happen on occasion, perhaps a couple times a year at most.
"Our protocol is simply to notify the California Department of Fish and Wildlife when a sighting is reported to us," he said in an email. "This is the same procedure for mountain lion sightings."
Nathan Graves, wildlife management supervisor for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Central Region, which covers Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, Mariposa, Merced, Monterey, San Benito, San Luis Obispo, Stanislaus, Tulare and Tuolumne counties, said it was the responsibility of a state biologist to respond to bear sightings if they met the threshold of public nuisance, human safety, or property damage.
Because there was likely no response to the two reports made within the City of Sonora, it was unknown whether there were multiple bears or a single bear making its rounds through the area.
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates between 30,000 to 40,000 black bears statewide, between a 100% to 200% increase over the last 40 years.
The bears are expected to have a population density of between 0.5 and 1.0 bears per square mile in the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
Graves said the rare incidence of bears in Sonora, a lower elevation foothills town to the range, was likely due to seasonal movement by bears seeking out their primary hibernation preparation food source: acorns.
"Bears are opportunistic feeders, but they also have learned behaviors and they're going to take advantage of any food source they can," he said.
Bear activity was more common, he noted, in higher elevations such as Twain Harte and Mi-Wuk-Village.
Early fall was the most common for them to be at this elevation, as they began to build up their fat reserves for the cold, scarce winter.
But this past year has shown a spike in bear activity throughout the CDFW’s Central Region, he noted, which was likely related to the persistent and critical drought being experienced throughout the state.
Graves said they were persistent this year in more urban areas such as Yosemite West, an unincorporated community of resort homes in Mariposa County. This season, some bears were breaking into homes, rustling through trash and leaving their scat in people's yards.
Outside of the Central Region, Graves noted, a group of students in a charter program even spotted a bear in San Andreas.
"The public just wants to let us know because they are seeing something they may think is unusual," he said. "It gets people's curiosity going and people are interested."
Bears were easily trained by patterns and learned behaviors, he noted, figuring out trash days or where delicious litter might be left by human activity.
Some bears in Yosemite West were trapped, tranquilized and marked to track their behaviors, he said. One particularly mischievous bear was resettled on National Forest land 20 miles away from the community.
Putting down bears is very rare, Graves noted, and a decision made by federal law enforcement if there was an immediate public safety response.
"As situations escalate, we want to make sure the public are safe and we want to make sure the bears are as well," he said.
Authorities said if a bear is spotted at a distance, make noise so it will move on. The public is not recommended to make eye contact or run.
"Do not run. Let the bear know you are not a threat. If approached by a bear, experts recommend raising your arms to look bigger and yelling at the bear," VanderWiel said. "Keep small children close and pets on leashes and bring them in at night."
Contact Giuseppe Ricapito at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4526.