The bare facts about bears in the Golden State

Despite its appearance on the state flag, it’s been more than a century since the California grizzly bear was last seen in the state. However, the state is home to approximately 16,000 to 24,000 black bears, spread out across much of the state’s 155,779 square miles. Head to a national park for your best opportunity to spot one.

Bear species in California

In 1908, a female grizzly known as “Moccasin John” was shot and killed in Trabuco Canyon. Since no other grizzly has been spotted since then, she is considered to be the last of her species in California. The state is now home to only two subspecies of black bears: the California black bear (Ursus americana californiensis) and the northwestern black bear (Ursus americana altifrontalis). Experts believe the Klamath Mountains form the border between the two. In California, black bears are usually brown, reddish brown and sometimes blond or blue-grey. It’s uncommon to see true black bears in the west.

Where to spot them

Bears prefer a habitat with a variety of foods, water and places to create a sheltered den for winter hibernation, so you’re most likely to see them in wooded areas. If food becomes scarce, they venture into other habitats like grasslands and meadows, returning to the forest when conditions improve. In California, you’re most likely to encounter a bear in the northern, eastern and western areas of the state. Bears are uncommon in the south.

Two of California’s national parks provide opportunities for bear encounters. Yosemite National Park and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are home to hundreds of black bears. Look for signs of the presence of bears such as bear tracks, scratch marks on trees, overturned rocks, tufts of fur on tree trunks or torn up logs where bears might have been searching for insects. Consider the time of year, and look for bears in areas where they look for food. For instance, bears eat berries in the summer and forage for acorns in the fall.

Staying safe around black bears

Over the years, bears in populated areas became habituated to human interaction. The National Park Service reports that the first known incident of a black bear breaking into a car in Yosemite National Park occurred in the 1920s. The California Department of Fish & Game offers these tips for bear safety in the wild and closer to home:

When camping and hiking: Use bear-proof containers for food and scented personal items like toiletries. Never store food in your tent, and clean up immediately after preparing meals. Make noise while you’re hiking so bears know you’re in the area.

When confronted by a bear: Don’t approach it. Make sure it has plenty of room to get past you. Don’t run. This may make the bear chase you. If you can’t avoid an encounter, stand up and raise your arms so you look larger. Yell and use anything at hand to make noise. Look the bear in the eye, but don’t stare.

When attacked by a bear: Your best bet when a bear threatens is to fight back. Throw rocks and hit the bear with whatever you can find, like branches or, if you’re at your campsite or near your car, whatever heavy gear is nearby.

Fun facts about black bears

Adult male black bears weigh about 250 pounds, while adult females weigh 100 pounds less. They can, however, grow much larger. The largest ever captured in Yosemite weighed almost 700 pounds. Bears eat insects but are largely vegetarians, eating berries, grass and acorns. They gorge in the fall to gain weight for hibernation.

Black bears hibernate to conserve energy with lowered respiration, body temperature and heart rate. Females give birth to one to three cubs during hibernation, and the cubs stay with their mother for the first 16 to 17 months of their lives.