California’s First Fatal Black Bear Attack Highlights Wildlife Management Problems

Updated May 22, 2024 at 9:02 PM

A baited black bear trap was placed at a residence after multiple recent break-ins

A baited black bear trap was placed at a residence after multiple recent break-ins

SIERRA COUNTY — Last November, Patrice Miller was found dead in her Downieville home, along with signs of a bear encounter. At the time, the Sierra County Coroner believed she had been mauled posthumously. The recently completed report by the Placer County pathologist, however, tells a different story: Miller was mauled to death after a black bear entered her home. According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), California has never had a documented fatal black bear attack.

The morbid news brought to light issues in the way CDFW collaborates with local law enforcement on bear incidents, particularly in the case of the trapping and euthanization of the bear responsible for Miller’s death. In fact, upon being contacted on Monday about the incident, Fish and Wildlife’s Information Officer wrote, “There has never been a documented fatal black bear attack on a human being in the history of the state that we’re aware of,” despite numerous attempts by Sierra County Sheriff Mike Fisher to contact and inform the department about Miller’s death and more recent dangerous situations.

After Miller was found, the Sierra County Sheriff’s Office sought a depredation permit, which is CDFW’s official permission to trap and euthanize a bear. It was here, according to Sheriff Fisher, that the bureaucratic problems began.

CDFW told Fisher that the depredation permit had to be requested by the house’s resident despite the fact that the resident was deceased and that the Sheriff’s Office could not make a request on its own. The homeowner eventually was able to issue a request, after which the permit was issued, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture trapper was called.

Once a trap was placed, a bear was caught within two days. A CDFW biologist then determined that the bear was female based on the bear’s appearance alone. Since DNA testing at the scene of the attack suggested the responsible bear was a male, CDFW ordered the release of the trapped bear. At this point, being disappointed with the unwillingness of CDFW to tranquilize the bear to “lift its leg” and find out for certain the sex of the bear, Fisher took matters into his own hands, seizing the bear and denying its release.

After a roughly 10-hour fight to get a CDFW biologist to tranquilize and examine the bear, involving the Sheriff threatening to call the KCRA 3 news station to document the release of the bear along with a statement by himself, Fisher’s instincts were justified. The bear was tranquilized, found to be a male, and euthanized. Since then, the DNA comparison between the euthanized bear and the evidence found at the scene of the mauling has not been released to the Sheriff’s Office, despite multiple requests from Fisher, raising some concern over whether the bear euthanized was the one responsible.

CDFW’s handling of Sierra County’s bear issues entered into the spotlight again last week when another bear broke into multiple residences, many with the residents inside, and was ultimately shot by deputies after attempting to enter the Downieville School gymnasium. One house was broken into three times by the same bear, during one of which the resident woke up from sleeping on his couch to find the bear in the room with him. A depredation permit had already been requested before the bear was finally shot. Still, CDFW took no action until the Sheriff’s Office took it upon itself to declare the bear a public safety threat and call the trapper.

Sheriff Fisher believes the lack of communication and collaboration between his office and CDFW stems from a 2022 policy change. Previously, game wardens “in the field” could make real-time decisions about issuing permits when necessary, but the new policy requires a review process involving CDFW biologists. According to CDFW’s “Black Bear Conservation Plan,” which is currently undergoing a public comment period, the number of black bears killed via depredation permits dropped well over 50% from 2021 to 2022.

In Sheriff Fisher’s view, the extra steps, poor communication, and unwillingness to issue depredation permits cause an unnecessary risk to public safety, potentially forcing local law enforcement to do wildlife management, which should be the responsibility of CDFW. Fisher fully supports the local game warden and CDFW employees with boots on the ground in Sierra County. However, he feels that the department’s decision-making management has been unwilling to work with his office when the bear issues are most pressing, and CDFW has the budget and scope to handle those issues. After reaching out for contact, the Sheriff is still waiting to hear from the director of CDFW or any senior staff.

Fisher stressed that, for the most part, bears in the community are not, and should not, be declared threats to public safety and euthanized. The Sheriff’s Office is monitoring at least three other bears in Western Sierra County, some of which have gone as far as breaking into unoccupied houses. None have demonstrated the level of aggression and dangerous behavior of the bear put down last week. Fisher clarified that making loud noises, such as banging pots and pans or using an air horn, is generally the best way to haze a bear and discourage them from seeking food in homes or other man-made structures.

The Sheriff recommends that all bear encounters be reported to the Sheriff’s Office at (530) 289-3700 so an accurate profile of local bears can be tracked. After reporting to the Sheriff’s office, Fisher suggests calling the Wildlife Conflict Hotline Number, (916) 358-2917.

Update: On Wednesday morning, Sheriff Fisher met with Fish and Wildlife representatives and supervisors, including acting Chief of Enforcement Nathaniel Arnold, to discuss the issues presented in this article. Also present at the meeting were members of California Assemblywoman Megan Dahle’s office. Fisher feels that CDFW has recognized their failures and is hopeful that collaboration will improve, though “only time will tell.” Shortly after the meeting ended, the Sheriff was given information on the DNA comparison by CDFW confirming that the bear euthanized in November was, in fact, the bear responsible for Patrice Miller’s death.

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