The only native bears in San Diego County are grizzly bears, which were exterminated before 1900. Black bears may be currently reclaiming that space in the local ecology, but the jury is still out on whether black bears will persist in the County.
In 1933, 28 black bears were relocated from Yosemite to the San Bernardino Mountains, with another 11 relocated to the San Gabriel Mountains. The population in each area gradually expanded to somewhere between 150 and 500 in each region, the maximum carrying capacity. For many years, the bears stayed north of I-10, with only an occasional individual being sighted south of I-10.
In the past few years, there have been an increased number of sightings of black bears south of I-10, including ~10 in San Diego County 30-70 miles south of I-10. One possible explanation for the sightings in San Diego County is that somewhere around 1997, a population south of I-10 became established in the San Jacinto and perhaps the Santa Rosa Mountains. From this base, black bears are now frequently sighted in San Diego County. However, this explanation is by no means yet a clear fact. It will require at least several more years to establish whether there is an established population south of I-10, or if the observed bears were transients caused by some infrequent event in the population north of I-10.
The following table gives the number of black bear sightings in San Diego County in five year periods:
Years Number of Bear Sightings
The data are given below.
There is no doubt that the number of sightings has increased significantly, especially since the 10 sightings in 1996-2000 have all occurred in the last two out of the last five years in that interval. However, the number of sightings does not necessarily equal the number of bears, and it is dangerous to extrapolate the data from only two years far into the future. For example, if only one of a population of 10 bears is female, that population is not guaranteed to survive. Also, keep in mind the unsuccessful attempt to establish a breeding population in San Diego County in 1917-1919.
If the population keep growing, and the numbers south of I-10 grow to the hundreds, then it is likely that the population has become established.
Are Bears Likely to Harm You?
Despite the fear that bears cause in many people, bears are a natural part of the ecology, and extremely unlikely to harm you. The bears in the San Gabriel Mountains are rarely seen, and rarely bother people. I have hiked well over 1000 miles there and never seen a bear, although I have seen plenty of bear poop along the trail. See If You Encounter a Bear for advice if you are lucky enough to see a bear up close.
All too often, panicked people shoot a bear or cause its destruction by complaining about it. In 1998, 151 bears were killed due to complaints about them being "problem bears". In Lake Tahoe, a Bear Preservation League (at (530) 525-PAWS) was organized to teach humans how to get along with bears, to prevent unnecessary bear deaths.
Remember, it is not illegal to be a bear! Please do not over-react to seeing a bear and cause the death of an animal that meant you no harm. By the way, bears are protected from hunting in San Diego County, since it is not an official hunting zone. (SDUT 8/24/99, B1)
List of Sightings
Sightings in San Diego County:
In 1917-1919, a group of servicemen introduced bears to the Cuyamaca Mountains and Campo.
A mother black bear with cub was reported at Camp Pendleton in 1973 (San Diego: An Introduction to the Region, Third Edition, p. 47)
In 1976, bears were sighted in the Lake Henshaw/Palomar Mountain area and at Buckman Springs.
A bear was seen at Cuyamaca State Park in the 1970s (David Holt's Black Bears in San Diego County)
A single bear was sighted in the Agua Tibia Wilderness at Palomar Mountain in 1985, and also in 1987 on the north slope of Palomar Mountain.
A female cinnamon colored black bear confirmed near Highway 76, Lake Henshaw, and the San Luis Rey picnic area in 1994.
In Summer 1999, there were black bear sightings on Palomar Mountain (a sow and her two cubs were spotted numerous times at the La Jolla Reservation Campground off Highway 76 northwest of Lake Henshaw), Vulcan Mountain, and in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park (6/24/99). (SDUT 8/24/99, B1; 11/9/99, B5, B8)
In September 1999, there was a confirmed sighting and photograph of a brown colored black bear at Fry Creek on Palomar Mountain.
A 200 pound black bear was sighted on Cedar Summit Drive in Ramona about 1 p.m. on 11/7/99. (SDUT 11/9/99, B5, B8)
A single bear took up residence in Heise Park in 1999 (Black Bears in San Diego County).
In December 1999, there was a confirmed report of treed bear in Ramona.
In January 2000, a brown-colored black bear was sighted in the Palomar Mountain area.
In May 2000, two black bears were reported on Palomar Mountain.
A 200 pound male black bear was killed in the Ballena Valley nine miles east of Ramona on 5/15/00 at ~ 6 p.m. after it entered David Benson's yard and approached their sheep and pigs. David and his wife Nancy tried to scare it away, but it turned toward them and stood up. David fired a warning shot into the air, to no effect, and then shot the bear in the head.
There have been three reports of a bear breaking into coolers and a shed in the Julian and Ramona areas. (SDUT 5/17/00)
Unreferenced sightings above are from San Diego Natural History Museum's American Black Bear and Sightings.
Jim Cornett's Black bears making return to cool San Jacinto Mountains
David Holt's Black Bears in San Diego County (David is a Supervising Park Ranger, presumably in San Diego County)
I have heard that there are some in Palomar but I haven't heard of anyone coming across one. If we have bears in this county I would think someone would come across one. There is a lot of hunters and nature people that are on that mtn daily and it would be hard for someone to not come across one. So I find it not likely. It would make the news at some point. Just like the pigs it only takes a few sightings fro someone to get a picture. Specially with all of us hunters using trail cameras these days.
I live in the lake Henshaw area and haven't heard any bear stories from the locals up here, The lion population however is doing well up here I see tracks regularly (usually after a rain storm) and we hear of sightings pretty regularly
I don't have any data to back this up....Yet! But a few years ago I heard a government trapper that I know trapped a black bear on a cattle ranch after the land owner complained of one chasing his animals. I did search the web on this and came up empty.
About 10 years ago Lungpopper and I hiked into Barker Valley,and as we reached the bottom we walked up river to the west end and something really big busted out of the thick bushes and ran straight away from us.Unlike a deer it plowed right through the the brush and trees sounding like a bear it just mowed a path away from us.We never seen it but we were prob 50 or 60 yrds when we bumped it.After that we took notice to the fact that the canyon could deffinately support a bear.With plenty of food and year round water.Barker Valley is a direct connect from Palomar to Henshaw.
I had I guy beg me to come shoot a bear that was eating his apples in Julian a few years back. I didn't have a tag that year and I'm not sure if it is a legal zone. I thought it was state wide but not sure.
I have a friend that says he knows of 4 different bears in one spot around the Julian area. He would see them about every other time he sat in his tree stand. He was able to confirm the fact of four different bears by the drastic color differences between them. He said two of them were fairly big..
The local DFG office has a bear on display that came from a road kill off of S7 on Palomar. Also cuyamaca state park has photos and beware signs of some bears in the area. I'm waiting for the day that my dogs accidentally tree a bear. They are defintaely here and I have seen bear signs in Barker also.