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Davis, California

Saturday, April 20, 2024

West Davis Pond’s island-dwelling bear, nick-named Gilligan, met an untimely death

A young black bear recently sighted in West Pond area was struck by a car 

A two-year-old black bear sighted in Davis who earned the nickname “Gilligan” after taking up residence on an island in West Pond was discovered to have been struck by a car and killed on May 2 after eluding capture by city officials for several days. 

Police first sounded the alert of a bear sighting in Davis on social media early morning on April 29 around 8:30 a.m. Included was a short clip from a home security camera, showing a small brown bear wandering down a residential driveway. 

“The Davis Police Department has received reports of a small brown bear last seen at about 7 AM near the West Davis pond (Near Arlington Blvd/Shasta Dr – west of SR 113),” the post read. “If seen please use caution, do not approach, and call 911 immediately. Animal Control Officers are in the area.”

John McNerney, the wildlife resource specialist for the City of Davis, said the bear had traveled to West Area Pond — about a half mile from the area of the initial sighting — by the time he was notified of its presence. Yolo County Animal Control and the Davis PD had been searching for the animal that morning without luck, he said, though another reported sighting had placed the bear in the stormwater basin of the pond.  

While he and other officials spent the day looking for the bear, McNerney said he remained in contact with biologists from the California Department of Fish & Wildlife (CDFW) to discuss the best course for safely capturing and removing it from the area. 

“The best-case scenario [is] that [the bear] wanders back out of town and goes on its merry way to find a better habitat,” McNerney said. “But even then, we understood that it was in the middle of agriculture and urban development. That’s not a really good spot for the bear.” 

Wildlife officials planned to tranquilize the animal and transport it to a suitable habitat, McNerney said. The bear’s chosen spot made this strategy challenging, however, as dense foliage and water presented a risk for both wildlife personnel and the bear itself.   

“While the bear was down there inside the basin it was unsafe to do any kind of chemical immobilization,” McNerney said. “Largely that’s because of the water down there, and there’s a lot of vegetation, trip hazards. The bear could drown [or] the researchers and biologists could drown.” 

The next day, the bear was seen again inside the pond. That evening, pedestrian access to that part of the Greenbelt was closed. With humans gone, CDFW officials hoped that the bear would leave the pond, either continuing out of town or moving to a location where it could be safely captured, McNerney said. 

“That didn’t work out,” McNerney said. “It stayed in the pond the rest of that afternoon, through the evening, apparently.”

The next morning, McNerney said officials saw the bear again on the island in West Pond. At that point, it seemed it was beginning to set up a more permanent residence. 

“It looked like maybe it was setting up a little bit of a territory, going out on a foraging mission at night, and coming back to the safety of the pond during the day, “McNerney said.  

CDFW officials set a trap in the basin on May 1, but McNerney said the bear didn’t take the bait. There were no more sightings until about 1 p.m. the next day when a resident near County Road 29 reported that she and her family had seen a bear on their property earlier in the day. 

It was that evening a dead bear was reported next to Highway 113 near County Road 27. Unique color markings on the bear’s head confirmed it was the same bear that officials had been tracking in Davis, McNerney said. 

CDFW officials conducted a necropsy on the bear’s carcass, determining its age and health, as well as how it died. McNerney said the bear was a two-year-old male of about 170 pounds. Its injuries were all consistent with its apparent death by a vehicle collision.

McNerney said he wasn’t sure who dubbed the deceased bear “Gilligan,” since his department tends to avoid nicknaming wildlife. He guessed that social media users had named it after the ’60s sitcom “Gilligan’s Island” upon learning about the bear’s chosen island habitat. 

Bear sightings are typically rare in Davis, however, in June of last year, another young black bear was successfully captured and released after wandering into the Arboretum, as reported by UC Davis News and Relations. That bear had likely been kicked out of his original habitat after his mother had new cubs, according to Josh Bush of CDFW. 

“Sometimes they get lost and wind up in places that are less desirable for bears and people,” Bush told Campus News. 

“Gilligan” probably wound up in Davis under similar circumstances, McNerney said, with a pregnant mother forcing the young bear off her territory to make room for her new offspring. 

“Mom says, ‘It’s time for you to go, you’re on your own, I’ve got to defend my territory and feed your brothers and sisters,’” McNerney said. “She then will start pushing those ‘older youngsters’ off-territory.”

The recently evicted young bears must then find a new habitat, McNerney said. Often the surrounding area is already occupied by other bears, however, pushing the bear to move further and further in its search for a new home. Sometimes, they encounter human-made or natural physical barriers, forcing them to travel down available corridors — such as irrigation channels or roadways — which can eventually leave them deep into human territory, McNerney said. 

Written by: Tim Lalonde — city@theaggie.org


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