Black bears spotted in Napa Valley’s Spring Mountain District

The presence of wildlife must mean healthy vineyards and a healthy environment: Original article published in the St. Helena Star

A year after the devastating fires, one possible impact may be that a bear or maybe several bears are moving through the forests and vineyards on Spring Mountain. Several vineyards and wineries have been visited by bears in the last several months in different areas of the Spring Mountain District area in St. Helena.

The bears being spotted in Napa Valley are black bears, Ursus americanus. These are the only type found today in California, distinguished by a long snout.

The Bergman family, whose property is located behind the Bale Grist Mill, first saw a black bear on their property from the footage from their game camera on July 25. The bear seemed to be attracted to the Bergmans’ fruit trees — the animal had climbed over deer fencing to get into their orchard.

“I was sitting in the airport in Bordeaux on a research trip and I received an email with video from the game camera showing the bear,” Pam Bergman said. “I started screaming and everyone was staring at me.”

Upon seeing the traces of the bear, Bergman called in a wildlife biologist to find out what the next steps might be. “We are trying to prevent our grapes from being eaten but more importantly our concern is for safety, making sure all of our workers and our family are safe, focusing on the overall safety of anyone coming on our property,” Bergman explained.

“I also met with Napa County’s trapper,” she said, “and I learned that the county’s goal is to mitigate the situation as best as possible. I learned that Napa County doesn’t relocate bears that are found here.”

“We had wondered whether there might be a visiting bear last year, when the ripest figs on the top of our fig trees, at a height of nine feet, were stripped clean overnight. This could only have been a big animal, like a bear, on its hind legs.”

Other fruit trees, including pears and peaches, were also stripped suddenly overnight last year. The Bergmans installed a game camera at the spot where they think the bear may be entering their property, and have now captured a number of video sequences of a bear moving by.

“We are now trying to do everything for bear mitigation,” she said. “We are fixing our fence and checking our cameras often. We are making sure that our trash cans are kept inside and that we clean up after we use our barbecue,” she adds.

The Bergman property includes 10 acres of vineyard; they also have a one-acre culinary garden, which includes a number of fruit trees as well as roses.

“When we were recently at a wilderness retreat in Canada, we were given pocket size air horns to carry in case a bear came close to us there. I now have a big basket of those which I give to anyone who is on our property,” she said. “We also make sure that visitors or employees do not wear headphones while they’re walking through the vineyards or the orchard. I’d like to think that the bear is coming to bless the harvest, and I respect the spiritual interpretation of a bear’s presence, connoting strength, wisdom and health.”

Numerous bear sightings reported

At Smith-Madrone, starting after the fires last fall, Stuart Smith has seen numerous traces of bears. He likes having the bears around.

“They’re interesting and so far they really don’t eat that much,” he said. “However, they do damage the fences and break the wooden posts that they tend to climb and apparently shake until they break, to get into the vineyards. They’re fun and to have a big old hairy dude wandering around is entertaining. In some ways they’re similar to turkeys, where lots of vineyardists think they eat a lot of grapes and in my studying of them, they don’t. The bear is very meticulous and has a very clean way of eating the grapes; it’s not as though he just mashes down on a cluster and sucks the juice out. Somehow he’s able to pick off the grapes berry by berry.”

“I think seeing bears in our vineyards is an indication that we’re doing a good job environmentally with our vineyards, fences, wildlife corridors and open space. On the other hand, I won’t have the same attitude when wild boars start showing up on our side of the mountain,” he said.

James Leahy at Marston Family Vineyard has seen scratches and other signs of a bear near his vineyard’s water system.

Cain’s vineyard manager, Ashley Anderson Bennett, saw possible evidence of a bear on their property several months ago: “Our gate was lifted up in a strange way that wasn’t a person but had to be a very strong animal. Last year, one of my employees saw it on the other side of our fence and we also saw where it climbed up and over our fence in a couple spots,” she said.

In January, a bear roamed through and ruined six bee hives at Charbay, but has not returned there in the last few months, according to Susan Karakasevic.

Since 1990 Christina and Carroll Ballard have had a bear visit their property regularly.

“Last year the bear found our Italian plums to his liking. He climbed the tree, broke some limbs and gorged himself,” Christina Ballard said. “He also loves our blackberries and seems not to be bothered by their thorns. So far he hasn’t done much damage to our grapes. A little picking here and there but, as long as we have all these other culinary choices, including Queens of The Desert figs, he seems to be content.”

Robust bear population in Lake County

“We have been receiving numerous bear sightings from northern Napa County,” said Stacy Martinelli, wildlife biologist for the State of California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife-Napa County. “It is not terribly uncommon that there are bears around.”

She said there is a fairly robust bear population just over the Napa County line in Lake County, and she speculates that those bears may be dispersing south, “but that’s total speculation on my part,” she said.

“Our observations of bears seem to correspond with the grape harvest,” Martinelli said. “The uncanny thing is that the bears seem to sense the sugar levels in grapes and hit the vineyards just days before harvest. They have a tremendous sense of smell. Anytime fruit is ripe and falling from the trees, we have had reports of bears. Recently, pear trees in Angwin seem to have attracted some bears.”

Could the bear who visited the Bergman property be the same bear visiting Smith-Madrone? Martinelli said it could be.

“These bears travel great distances in search of food and they’re omnivorous and opportunistic,” she said. They eat plants, fruits, nuts, carrion and deer: “they need to fuel that big body all the time,” she added.

What can property owners do to prevent bear activity? “For fruit trees and grapes the only thing that we know that works is electrical fencing. It’s high maintenance, but it does deter bears, if maintained and kept hot and placed strategically,” she said.

Garbage management needed

“Our biggest take home message for the public is to do garbage management,” Martinelli said. “We don’t want bears to habituate to eating human garbage. Don’t leave barbecue grills dirty, don’t leave cut-up food outside, pick up fallen fruit and harvest fruit as soon as you can. Keep pet food inside and keep any smelly human food inside, in a locked garage or contained space.”

Martinelli explained that there haven’t been any reports of bears “going Tahoe crazy,” breaking into cars as they’re known to do around Lake Tahoe.

“The public needs to know that northern California is bear habitat and that we have to keep garbage under control,” she said.

Martinelli offered advice to anyone traveling or hiking through forests and bear habitat. “Carry bear repellant, which you can get at REI. You can carry air horns — I’m not sure if they work, but it’s worth it to have one in your pocket. You can also get bear bells at places like REI: that way you’re announcing to the bear that you’re coming. The worst thing that can happen is to take a bear by surprise, especially if it’s a mother with a cub.”

And if you do encounter a bear? “Walk slowly backwards, don’t make eye contact, don’t run, back away as carefully and quietly as you can,” she said. “Usually they’ll be afraid of you. I don’t know of any negative human-bear interactions in the last 17 years, in my area. Not everything comes across my desk, but when there has been a situation, it’s just some type of man-made situation, a bear getting into garbage type of thing.”

“What I’ve seen around Tahoe is a fed bear is a dead bear,” Martinelli said. “We need to make sure we’re not providing any food resources for the bears. We want them in the wilderness searching for their own food. It’s tough in wine country where the grapes are so delicious to bears.”

Editor’s note: Charlotte Smith is a college student who grew up in St. Helena. Julie Ann Kodmur is a St. Helena publicist.