Donna Vail was washing dishes in her Smith River home last Saturday when out the kitchen window she spotted a trio of bears.

She and husband Larry have lived in Del Norte County for 10 years, the last three on the Smith River along South Bank Road. They’ve seen plenty of wildlife, from elk to eagles.

But no bears.

So Donna Vail ran to get her 300mm Nikon camera, then snapped some quick shots of the three bears.

“It was early morning, about 9 a.m. The bears are usually out at night when we’re sleeping. We don’t normally see them in the daytime,” Vail said.

“I captured this big papa standing there. I like to think the other two were mama and baby. It’s fun to think of them as a family.”

Vail said her neighbors regularly talk of bears amongst the trees, getting into trash cans. One of her neighbors down South Bank Road even set up a night-vision camera to keep an eye on the four-legged visitors.

Peter Tira, a California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) public information officer, said black bears actually are quite active this time of year. “You’ve got to keep in mind that bears have a great sense of smell. They are always looking for food before they hibernate for the winter,” Tira said.

“They do slow down and are far less active, but right now, they’re out fattening up on the landscape. So, you really need to be vigilant if you live in bear country.”

Tira said black bears are very common in the northwest corner of California, adding that the population is growing statewide. According to the CDFW, California's black bear population has increased over the past 25 years.

In 1982, the statewide bear population was estimated at 10,000 to 15,000. The California black bear population today is conservatively estimated at 30,000 to 40,000.

According to the CDFW’s website, the North Coast/Cascade black bear subpopulation occurs north and west of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. About half of the statewide black bear population resides in this portion of the state.

Studies indicate that densities range from 1.0 to 2.5 bears per square mile, according to the CDFW.

Tira said the state of California does not have grizzly bears, only black bears. However, the black bear comes in several shades of fur, including black, blonde, brown and cinnamon.

“Black bears are active this time of year. You see them all over the state. They get killed on the highways. So, you need to be ‘bear aware,’” Tira said.

“In another month or so, they will disappear. They’ll have made dens -hopefully, not under your house or cabin.”

The trick to keeping bears away from home is to keep them wild, Tira said.

And the CDFW offers general guidelines to help keep you safe in the event of a black bear encounter.

— If a bear breaks into your home, do not confront it. Most bears will quickly look for an escape route. Move away to a safe place. Do not block exit points. If the bear does not leave, get to a safe place and call 911.

— If you encounter a bear in your yard, chances are it will move on if there is nothing for the bear to forage. If there is enough distance between you and the bear, you can encourage the bear to leave by using noisemakers or blowing a whistle.

— Do not toss food scraps out into the yard.

— Purchase and properly use a bear-proof garbage container. Wait to put trash out until the morning of collection day.

— Do not leave trash, groceries or pet food in your car.

— Keep garbage cans clean; deodorize them with bleach or ammonia. Keep barbecue grills clean and stored in a garage or shed when not in use.

— It’s better not to not hang bird feeders in bear country. If you must, do so only during November through March, and make them inaccessible to bears … which are excellent climbers.

If a bear causes damage to your home or property, contact the North Region Department of Fish and Wildlife Regional Office at 530-225-2300. CDFW will provide strategies to make your property less attractive to bears, explain the depredation permit process, and may conduct a site inspection.

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