Grizzly bears have been extinct in California for a century, and while the state still supports a large black bear population, seeing a bear in nature is a rare and sometimes scary experience.
One program in Sonoma County hopes to rekindle the long shared history of coexistence between California's humans and bears of California.
The program is part of the Santa Rosa-based California Indian Museum and Cultural Center’s youth programs.
"Being with Bears just kind of came out of that partnership in wanting to get native youth out into our local parks and engage with our environment and learn about bear conservation, and also learn about cultural history and arts related to bears," Nicole Lim said.
Lim is the museum’s executive director.
"Everybody loves bears, it's a popular program right now we've got 18 youth enrolled, but it's also just a great way to engage with culture, engage with the environment, work with partners like the North Bay Bear Collaborative and Sonoma County Parks, and get youth doing cultural revitalization and getting them outdoors," Lim said.
She said the program is in its second year, and that a traveling exhibit on the California grizzly, which appeared at the museum a few years ago, partly sparked the idea.
"Our youth learned a lot about the history of bears in California and how bears, you know, were hunted to extinction," Lim said. "And a lot of that kind of coincided and and drew a lot of parallels to our own tribal history and the genocide and colonization that took place in California."
Lim said the students from the first year of Being with Bears have remained inspired.
"One of the things that they made was a bear education card so that people could learn how to be bear smart and protect the space between human and bears so that bears don't have to be euthanized when they get attracted to our garbage cans and and other things," Lim said.
Bears eat many of the same foods traditionally eaten by Northern California’s native communities, and environmental restoration and preservation is one important part in revitalizing California’s bear population.
"Connecting the riparian zones," Lim said. "Allow them to travel and move across the county without having to go through neighborhoods and roads."