The Four Horsemen of the Gradually Urbanizing Black Bear

Why black bears may be showing up more often in California communities

February 27, 2022

By: Blaire Hobbs

Last month, news broke that Hank the Tank, the infamous 500lb. black bear ransacking South Lake Tahoe homes was in fact 3 bears. Thanks to DNA evidence, Hank is now off the hook, however, while Hank may be glad to no longer shoulder all the blame, communities and bear’s alike must shoulder a potential reality where bears like Hank are showing up more often.

Due to human encroachment on the bear’s habitat as well as additional climate and disease pressures, Californians may be seeing an uptick of bears wandering into urbanized spaces as they develop a preference for human food and acclimate to human environments.

California Bears: They’re Undeniable

Despite the variety of colors known to California bears, California only has one wild bear species - the Black Bear. Their fur ranges from black to very light brown, with occasional white chest patches. Black bears are a highly ubiquitous creature and exist across the country; only nine states, including Hawaii, have no black bear inhabitants, though even most of these states will have recurring sightings.

Black bears are considered a generalist species - they can survive in a variety of different environments from grasslands to desert to urban adjacent areas, however they are more densely populated in mountainous forested zones. Likewise, they thrive best in ecosystems with structural diversity, a term used to describe an area with diverse vegetation - though not just diversity of species but also diversity of height and layout. This complements the bear’s diverse diet; the omnivorous black bear is an opportunistic eater, meaning it will eat everything available: insects, nuts, berries, grasses, some meat, and now human food as well.

This map from the CA Department of Fish and Wildlife shows the range of black bear’s habitat in California as of 2021.

Black bears are no stranger to human encroachment. Black bears were thought to roam much of North America at one time, but it’s hypothesized that large-scale hunting operations and habitat loss from human infrastructural advancement drove bear populations down and limited their habitat.

This image shows the historical habitat range from black bears, circa 1900, from a 1981 report on the mammals of North America.

While their current habitat is significantly smaller, that hasn’t stopped the black bear from thriving. A 2016 assessment from The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species (the IUCN Red List), found them to be a species of Least Concern, the furthest a species can be from extinct. And in fact, they’re numbers are increasing. In California, in 1982, their population was between 10 and 20,000. Now, the current estimates sit between 30,000-40,000. This has spurred thorough conservation management plans, coordinated with widespread hunting operations from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which seeks to keep populations in balance and conflicts between humans and bears at a minimum. Despite these efforts, several factors seem to be drawing California black bears and humans closer together


In California, most bear’s live on public lands. Thus, unhindered infrastructural sprawl is limited. However, other human factors, such as food access, infringe on the bear’s natural inclination to forage.


Climate Change

Climate change indiscriminately impacts everyone and everything. As a planet, we are scurrying to find ways to cope. Wildlife, too, must gradually adapt their behaviors to suit the surrounding environment, however, for black bears this seems to be causing more acute growing pains than others as species and habitats collide.

While highly adaptable creatures, the rapidly changing environment has driven them further into urbanized and human-food laden places, creating dangerous situations for both bears and humans. Among the many repercussions of climate change’s rising temperatures, drought and wildfires seem to have the most impact on black bears, especially on their access to food and water. With dwindling food and water sources, as well as dwindling habitat, black bear populations are finding their ways into more temperate environments, and also more urbanized areas.

  • Rising temperatures
  • Droughts

  • Wildfires

Behavioral science

Behavioral science is somewhat self-explanatory - it is the study of human behavior, although it can range from studying specific behaviors, to motivations for behaviors, to behaviors linked to psychological conditions or trauma. Behavioral science is a broad discipline that can encompass anthropology, sociology, cognitive psychology, as well as behavioral economics. [1]

Behavioral economics

Behavioral economics, a subdiscipline of behavioral science, is more specific in that it examines human behavior as it relates to decision-making. While more of a psychological science in practice, it is also considered an economic discipline for how individual decision-making affects broader socio-economic trends. For instance, behavioral economists might study the proportion of people that bought one product compared to another. And why? Or what made this insurance plan, or that gym membership more popular. While behaviorist economists are curious about particular decisions, they more accurately, are curious about what made this decision so appealing out of the array of decisions available, despite the trade-offs attached to each decision. Why did they choose to buy fast food vs produce or other takeout? [2]