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Northern California Town Grapples With Problem Bears, One of Them Deadly

Northern California Town Grapples With Problem Bears, One of Them Deadly

A North American black bear spotted in Yosemite National Park, California. (Dreamstime/TNS)

Jill McLaughlin

Jill McLaughlin

6/10/2024

Updated: 6/11/2024

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Bears in one rural California village have grown from nuisance to deadly threat in the past six months as local black bears have been entering schools and homes searching for food.
Residents in the tiny northern town of Downieville, about 60 miles northwest of Truckee, are accustomed to living with wildlife and bears roaming neighborhoods. They make sure their trash is secure and they don’t leave bird feeders out.
But since November, when a bear mauled an elderly resident to death in her home, locals are growing more concerned.
“It’s a community that’s used to living in and around bears,” said former school principal and superintendent Jim Johnston. “But if they get too aggressive, people get concerned.”
The 71-year-old woman who was mauled to death was the first known fatal black bear attack in the state, according to California Fish and Wildlife officials.
Patrice Miller’s body was discovered when a store clerk in the small town realized he hadn’t seen her in a couple of days. She had some medical issues and the clerk asked if the sheriff could check on her.
Neighbors in the small town told Mr. Johnston the woman had been feeding the bear.
When deputies arrived at her house, they found her deceased, according to Sierra County Sheriff Mike Fisher.
The sheriff said it looked as if her body had been eaten by a bear over a number of days.
“In the beginning, we were under the impression that the bear interaction was postmortem,” said Mr. Fisher.
The small sheriff’s office enlisted the help of Placer County to perform an autopsy. A pathologist working on the investigation consulted with a colleague in Alaska who was familiar with bear maulings. They concluded Ms. Miller’s death was caused by a bear attack.
“That was kind of a game changer,” he said.
The DNA evidence also indicated that it was a male black bear.
The investigation continued and deputies were forced to chase the bear off the property as it returned every day to the house, which Ms. Miller had rented.
The sheriff became frustrated as he tried to get the state’s fish and wildlife department to trap the bear, only to be told that state law dictates the home’s occupant had to make the request.
“I had to tell them the occupant was eaten by the bear,” Mr. Fisher said. But that explanation wasn’t enough.
Mr Fisher said he reached the landlord and got him to sign paperwork allowing for the capture, and after two days state wildlife officials came out and caught the bear.
However, they refused to euthanize the animal after a visual inspection, saying the bear was a female. A fish and game biologist told the sheriff her supervisors directed her to release the bear.
“I wanted the bear tranquilized to determine the sex,” Mr. Fisher said. “I ultimately seized the bear and trap and put a padlock on it, and directed the trapper not to release the bear unless I authorized it. I was told I was creating a spectacle.”
Despite the struggle with the state, the sheriff was able to get a biologist to tranquilize the bear long enough to confirm it was a male and to collect DNA from the animal. The DNA matched the samples taken from Ms. Miller during the autopsy and the bear was euthanized.
Ms. Miller’s horrific death was followed by bears breaking into the local high school and several other homes, Mr. Fisher said.
Encounters in the county lessened as winter set in but the bears have re-emerged since May, according to the sheriff. Three black bears started visiting the Downieville area—two are black and one is cinnamon-colored.
“The cinnamon-colored bear started causing havoc in our community,” Mr. Fisher said. “We’ve had at least five documented incidents of the bear breaking into homes.”
Residents were home at two of the houses, he said. One business owner also reported a bear breaking into his shop and causing a lot of damage.
In another incident, an elderly man who was sleeping on his couch woke up to find a bear standing in his living room, Mr. Fisher said.
This time, the sheriff took matters into his own hands by declaring the bear a public safety hazard, which is allowed within the Fish and Wildlife Code. He contacted the federal bear trapper directly, and the bear was trapped and euthanized.
The cinnamon-colored bear also tried to enter the high school gym and cafeteria, then attempted to break into another house. A patrol sergeant was able to locate the bear and kill it with his patrol rifle, the sheriff said.
“I’m never going to put wildlife in front of public safety,” he said.
The uptick in bear encounters isn’t the only problem locals face. They also struggle with state wildlife regulations that prevent them from protecting the community against future bear attacks, the sheriff explained.
Recent policy changes, possibly spearheaded by environmental advocacy groups, seem to be prioritizing wildlife over public safety by taking away local game wardens’ ability to deal with dangerous bears, Mr. Fisher said.
“There is a fundamental breakdown in common sense in how we’re dealing not only with bear issues in California but also mountain lions,” Mr. Fisher said. “It just seems like there is a disconnect between public safety and wildlife management.”
Locals are supportive of how the sheriff is handling the bear situation, according to Mr. Johnston, who moved away from the town about two years ago but still keeps in touch with the community.
“Living in the woods, you have mountain lions, and you have bears, and you just have to learn to act appropriately,” Mr. Johnston said. “People in Downieville are used to living in nature and used to taking care of themselves. They’re very supporting of the Sheriff’s Department and how proactive they were in taking care of the bears.
“In the case of Downieville, it’s pro-bear—but it’s more pro-human,” he said.
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Jill McLaughlin

Jill McLaughlin

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Jill McLaughlin is an award-winning journalist covering politics, environment, and statewide issues. She has been a reporter and editor for newspapers in Oregon, Nevada, and New Mexico. Jill was born in Yosemite National Park and enjoys the majestic outdoors, traveling, golfing, and hiking.

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