First-ever black bear captured and collared in the Santa Monica Mountains

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This photo shows the black bear now known as BB-12 tagged and radio-collard in the western Santa Monica Mountains. Photo Courtesy of National Park Service.

‘BB-12’ even left footprints in the sand on a Malibu beach last Sunday

On April 23, National Park Service (NPS) biologists captured and radio-collared a 210-pound black bear in the western Santa Monica Mountains. Like the P-22 mountain lion of Griffith Park before him, he also appears to have crossed three different freeways in order to find a place to stake out his own territory. And, also like P-22, he seems likely destined to live out his life as a bachelor and the only one of his kind on this island surrounded by highways. 

Named BB-12 by scientists, he’s about 3 or 4 years old, and had been spotted several times over the last few years. Once captured and tranquilized, biologists performed a full physical exam on him; collecting biological samples, taking various body measurements, attaching an ear tag, and fitting a GPS radio-collar around his neck.  

This is the first black bear ever captured and radio-collared in the Santa Monica Mountains. The nearest population of black bears to Malibu is in the Santa Susana Mountains, north of the 118 Freeway – nearly 40 miles away. Although bears have occasionally been documented south of the 118, there‘s no evidence that any breeding populations have ever been established. 

“He appears to be the only bear here in the Santa Monica Mountains, and he’s likely been here for almost two years based on our remote camera data,” said Jeff Sikich, the lead field biologist of the park’s 20-year long mountain lion study. “This seems to be our first resident bear in the area. It’ll be interesting to see how he shares the landscape with the large carnivores.” 

“With the radio collar, we can track his movements and hopefully know if and where he may attempt to cross the freeway. This can help us better understand habitat connectivity for wildlife in the area,” Sikich continued. “Our team wasn’t expecting to be able to tag the bear, but the opportunity came up. So, hopefully we’ll learn about where he goes, his diet, and whether he’s crossing the roads. There are a lot of basic ecological questions we hope to answer.”

Back in July 2021, a young black bear was spotted near Reino Road in Newbury Park. Since then, images of a bear have been seen on wildlife trail cameras in the Santa Monica Mountains from Malibu Creek State Park to Point Mugu State Park. Biologists say all of those photos may be of the same bear. 

Bears are omnivores, meaning they eat a wide range of foods, including fruits, nuts, roots, insects, small animals, fish, honey, human food (such as in cars or at campsites), pet food, unsecured trash, and dead animals. They live for 15 to 25 years. 

“As this bear gets older and is looking to mate, it might attempt to move back north and cross the freeway again,” Sikich said. “Since there’s no evidence of an existing population here in the Santa Monica Mountains, there are likely no females.” 

Bear sightings have been rare in the Santa Monica Mountains. In the early 2000s, a bear carcass was discovered under a landslide in Malibu Creek State Park. In 2016, a bear was documented three times over three months on wildlife trail cameras in the central portion of the mountains but never detected again. 

Other black bears have occasionally been spotted through the years north of the 101 Freeway in the Simi Hills. Previous news reports include a bear spotted near Westlake High School in 2006 and one killed by a vehicle on the 101 Freeway near Lindero Canyon Blvd.  

Grizzly bears once roamed the entire state of California, but none have been seen since 1924 in Yosemite. They were all wiped out, which is ironic, considering that a grizzly bear is featured on the state flag. Black bears are not even native to Southern California. In the 1930s, about 30 black bears from Yosemite National Park were relocated to the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains; and their population grew and expanded.  

Black bears rarely become aggressive when encountered, and rarely attack people. If one is encountered while hiking, just keep a safe distance and slowly back away. Some say to make yourself look bigger by lifting and waving your arms and make noise by yelling, clapping your hands, using noisemakers, or whistling. Don’t run away or make eye contact. Let the bear leave the area on its own. If it makes contact, fight back. 

NPS biologists are excited to add the bear as a new species to their wildlife studies in the Santa Monica Mountains, expecting it will add new insights on urban wildlife.