The 400-pound black bear waddled off the front deck of Lynn Gravier’s hillside home in Mendocino County and ambled toward the kindhearted woman who, until recently, fed him every day of his life.
"That's Wombat!” cried Gravier’s, 76, as she stepped out of a car and limped with a cane toward her favorite bruin, tears forming in her eyes.
The bear’s ribs were showing through his thick fir, a clear indication that he had not been eating. It was a predictable outcome for Wombat and as many as 14 other bears after the grub they were depending on was hauled away last month during a raid by state wildlife officials.
It turns out that the ursine food dispenser that Gravier had set up on the 40 acres of woodlands that she owns east of Laytonville was not only ill-advised, but illegal. The house, piled high with filth, reportedly including bear excrement, was condemned by County authorities on the day of the raid, forcing Gravier to move to another family owned dwelling several miles a way.
“This is probably one of the most severe bear feeding cases that I have run into in my career,” said Lt. Loren Freeman, one of seven California Department of Fish and Game wardens who served a search warrant on Gravier's house on August 24. “She was having food delivered by a ranch supply house."
Gravier, known to almost everyone as the “bear woman,” was scheduled to be arraigned in Mendocino County Superior Court on Tuesday on a misdemeanor charge of feeding big game. She is accused of turning her home into a bear Shangri-la, buying as much as 6,000 pounds of rolled and cracked corn every month and storing it in a 40-foot long shipping container.
Her oafish friends were given names like Smiley, Goofy, Connie, Biggie and Wombat. She admitted to setting up a kiddie pool on her deck for wallowing and fixing peanut butter sandwiches for her guests, sometimes mixing it with glucosamine to ease the arthritic pain in the older bears.
“She was interacting with them on a daily basis,” said Freeman, citing evidence from surveillance teams that began monitoring her house after neighbors complained. “She would walk out on her deck with the bears and brush up against them, try to pet them.”
The criminal case has created a bit of a fury in this cattle and pot growing town of 1300 near the south fork of the Eel River in the heart of redwood country.
Supporters of Gravier protested Saturday in front of the Ukiah courthouse, castigating prosecutors for what they said was the harassment of a kind, caring animal lover.
“The bears never did any harm in the 25 years that she had them,” said Sherry Vincent, a friend from Lakeport who organized the demonstration. “She kept them out of other people's yards. Where else are they going to find food? In people's garbage cans? Then people would be shouting for trappers to come shoot these bears.”
Angry neighbors insisted, however, that Gravier’s bears have been a nuisance for a long time, ransacking food sheds, breaking into homes and chasing sheep and other livestock.
“We can't have any chickens because they'll kill them. We can't have any fruit trees because they just come in and knock them down,” said Pat Bailey, 37, a San Francisco man who owns property on the same road as Gravier. “We love bears, but she wants them as pets and they shouldn't be pets. These ones have no fear, and they should have fear."
Gravier’s behavior, which some have likened to a case of jumbo size animal hoarding, goes to the question of what it means to be a nature lover and whether it is even possible to keep wild animals wild.
The situation in Laytonville is particularly troubling because it comes on top of a huge increase over the past few decades in the number of bears in California. In 1984, there were 4,080 American black bears in the state, according to Fish and Game statistics. By 2008, the number had grown to 37,518, officials said.
The more bears there are, the more is needed to feed them. It has long been policy in California parks and wilderness areas not to feed bears. The species, wildlife experts say, becomes accustomed to human food too readily and often begins to rely on, and even expect, people to provide the grub.
Black bears are rarely dangerous to people — no one has been killed by one in California in the past 100 years — but human-fed bears rarely hibernate and tend to be more aggressive, said Mark Kenyon, the Department of Fish and Game's statewide bear coordinator.
Ready access to human food has also been shown to increase the number of offspring delivered by female bears, inflating the bear population. When that food source — be it garbage or deliberate feeding — is taken away, the spoiled behemoths generally go to another populated area looking for chow, Kenyon said.
Home and car break-ins by ravenous bears have been increasing in places like Yosemite and Lake Tahoe for this very reason, he said.
“We want people to view wild bears doing wild bear things, not sitting at a dinner table or feeding at a garbage dump,” Kenyon said. “That isn't wildlife. They might as well be all sitting at the zoo at that point."
Kenyon said state policy is not to relocate animals that break into homes or menace people, but to put them to death. Human habituated bears are also more likely to be taken by hunters, officials said, because they do not fear them.
Gravier is no longer allowed to feed her beloved bears or help them in any way. State wildlife officials have no plan for the hungry beasts, unless they begin to steal food or bother people, a likely scenario that will almost certainly result in a death sentence.
The story began 40 years ago when Gravier and her husband, Richard, bought the wooded property on a winding road outside of Laytonville. There were fewer homes in the area then, and wildlife was everywhere.
The high school sweethearts acquired the local Chevron station which is still in the family. Gravier said she began feeding bears 27 years ago because she loved to have them around.
There were no problems, she said, until about 2003, when a sow she had named Bonnie and her three cubs were killed by a trapper. The trapper was reportedly hired by the state under a depredation permit which allows the killing of bears that damage property or menace people.
Bear hunting is big in Mendocino County where, along with Siskiyou and Humboldt counties, a large share of California's 1700 bear limit is realized.
Certain neighbors, Gravier said, kill wildlife almost indiscriminately for financial gain. She has taken photographs of dead bears near her property with their paws and gall bladders missing.
Fish and Game wardens say California is in the midst of a poaching epidemic, including the illegal trade in bear gall bladders, which are believed in Asian countries to have medicinal qualities and can fetch $2000 an ounce.
It is no secret, Gravier said, that gun toting locals have illegally killed bears and even pet dogs, including her son’s, if they get loose. The poaching is possible, she said, because many local pot growers will not report illegal activity out of fear their crops will be discovered.
The bloodshed, Gravier said, made her feel like she had to protect the Bears. She began mixing up a concoction of cracked corn, dog food and oil to draw them to her house. She fed them, she said, so they would stay out of trouble elsewhere.
Gravier’s attempt to protect the bears probably backfired, experts said. One neighbor estimated that 50-60 problem bears have been killed by the trapper over the years as a result of her feeding.
Between 2000 and 2005, 17 bears were killed in the Laytonville area under permits issued by the Department of Fish and Game, a number that Freeman said was unusually high.
In 2005, game wardens reprimanded Gravier, but a complaint that she was feeding bears was never prosecuted. She said she tried to stop, but that same year, her husband died and things began to spiral out of control.
“That's what I think got me through my husband's death — all my animals,” she said, referring not only to her Bunyanesque buddies, but also to her 18 cats, three dogs, 40 peacocks and a steady stream of visiting turkeys and deer.
Freeman described Gravier’s house as the center of a wheel with bear tracks from all directions serving as spokes. Several sources said the hulking chowhounds spent a good bit of time inside the house with Gravier.
The day of her reunion with Wombat was her first visit back to the house since she was kicked out. She looked as though she was going to hug the cinnamon colored animal, but the bear moved toward a bush, apparently wary after weeks without human contact. Wombat won't make it through winter hibernation, Gravier said, unless he gets the food.
"It makes me just sick that I can't do anything for him,” she complained.
Prosecutors said Gravier has done quite enough, but she insists through tears that she cannot just abandon her “babies.”
“It is not a coincidence that bear hunting season began two days before they came down on me,” Gravier said. “If all your life you believe in helping animals and you get to the end of your life and they say you can't do it anymore, what are you supposed to do, roll over? I don't think that's okay.”
This article first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. Reprinted with permission of the author and the Chronicle.