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Climate and Environment

Meet BB-12. LA's Newest Neighbor Is A Black Bear Taking Residence In The Santa Monica Mountains

A black bear is seen in profile under lights
Meet BB-12, a young black bear collared last month in the Santa Monica Mountains.
(Courtesy NPS)
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Say hello to the Santa Monica Mountains' newest confirmed resident, BB-12 the black bear.

The young male, believed to be between 3 and 4 years old, was captured and collared in late April and then introduced this week to the public by park officials.

They note: "Although there have been bear sightings over the years, this is the first time biologists have captured and radio-collared a bear in the Santa Monica Mountains."

That means BB-12 marks the first opportunity to study black bears since park biologists began a close study of the region's mountain lions more than 20 years ago.

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The backstory

Some 30 black bears were imported from Yosemite to Southern California in the 1930s and released into the San Bernardino and San Gabriel Mountains. Since then, they’ve spread to various areas in the region like the Santa Susana Mountains, where scientists think BB-12 originated.

Prior to that repopulation, black bears — who date back 1 million years in Southern California fossil records — had not lived in locally for many, many years. A project tracking black bears, notes that they're believed to have migrated north during a 2,000 year megadrought.

Grizzly bears, which used to roam the state, became extinct in the early 1900s.

How he got there

BB-12's presence in the Santa Monica Mountains is no small feat. Biologists believe he likely crossed at least the 101 Freeway, potentially even the 118 highway, to make it to his new home in the Santa Monica hills.

The bear has been spotted in and around the Santa Monica Mountains for the last two years, but just last month biologists working with the National Park Service finally managed to capture him and fit a radio collar onto his neck.

What biologists hope to learn

Now, biologists working with the National Park Service will be able to track his movements across his new habitat and potentially gain insights into how he arrived there in the first place. Among the primary questions says Seth Riley, a wildlife ecologist for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area: "How do they use the landscape? How much do they use?'"

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"That's one of the things we've been interested in with all of the species that we study: Bobcats, coyotes, mountain lions," he said, "…how much are they using natural areas, versus urban areas, versus in between areas?”

Comparisons to P-22, the late celebrated puma

A large mountain lion walks across rocks at night with a tracking collar visible on his neck
(Miguel Ordeñana
Courtesy Natural History Museum of Los Angeles)

BB-12s presence in the Santa Monica Mountains parallels another L.A. wildlife celebrity that officials kept a close eye on, the late mountain lion P-22.

Across the 10 years officials were able to track P-22 in Griffith Park, he was the only mountain lion confirmed to live in the area, making Griffith Park his own personal bachelor preserve. Scientists like Riley are curious to see if BB-12 will make any attempts to cross back over into the Santa Susana’s as he ages to search of a mate. Or will he remain a master of his own domain much like P-22 did before his death last year?

How will black bears and mountain lions interact?

This will also give scientists an opportunity to further map interactions between the two species as mountain lions are the largest carnivores who maintain a habitat in the Santa Monica Mountains, or they were until the introduction of BB-12.

"One thing that people have seen in other parts of California, and other parts of the West actually is that bears will drive mountain lions off of kill,” Riley explained.

Though they tend to follow different diets — bears are omnivores and mountain lions are strict carnivores — their potential to interact provides plenty of food for thought for researchers, even while they say it's unlikely to occur often.

What you should do if you encounter a bear

First: Wildlife officials caution the public not to go out actively searching for black bears like BB-12. If you do encounter a black bear, keep in mind that they rarely become aggressive and tend to avoid humans.

Still, if you find yourself turning a corner and facing BB-12 best practices include slowly backing away and making your presence known by making yourself look larger and making loud sounds.

What questions do you have about Southern California?

Corrected May 8, 2023 at 5:48 PM PDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly said black bears were not native to Southern California. Black bears exist in fossil records dating as far back as 1 million years but had not lived locally until they were repopulated in the 1930s.
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