A large California black bear wandered into downtown Solvang left mostly empty by COVID-19 restrictions on Saturday evening, prompting response from sheriff's deputies and state fish and wildlife officials, who tranquilized the unlikely visitor and returned it to the forest.
Residents called 911 at 9:13 p.m., to alert authorities to the roaming bear, according to a report by the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office.
Upon locating the bear, estimated to weigh 450 pounds, which had settled in an alcove behind The Mole Hole on Mission Drive, deputies were able to establish a safe perimeter to keep pedestrians away from the area, while the California Highway Patrol assisted with diverting traffic off Mission Drive, between First Street and Alisal Road.
The Sheriff's Office also issued a “shelter-in-place” advisory to warn nearby residents of the presence of a potentially dangerous animal.
State fish and wildlife officials shot the bear once with a tranquilizer, according to the report, causing it to leave the alcove and move east, across Alisal Road and onto the Santa Ynez Mission, where it disappeared into the brush on the hillside.
Once located, a fish and wildlife biologist stepped in to administer an additional tranquilizer.
Longtime Solvang resident Rod Simmons, owner of Lone Star Engineering, a structural engineering firm that offers stress analysis, structural alterations and architectural restoration in the Santa Ynez Valley, says he was contacted by sheriff's Deputy Sandy Frausto after 10 p.m. Saturday night.
"I was already in bed when I got the call. I told them I'd be there in 20 minutes," Simmons said. "[Deputy Frausto] knows that I have heavy equipment — I've got the crane. I've always tried to help the city out when I can.
"We were able to spot his eyes when the game warden used his flashlight," Simmons said. "He was hidden in the brush pretty well, which is a normal thing for a bear to do. He was trying to hide."
Simmons said that after the second tranquilizer, the bear was well sedated which allowed the group to go in with chainsaws and cut a pathway to the bear.
The forest contributes nearly $103.4 million annual revenue to local businesses who gain from people visiting from all over the nation to hike, bike and camp in our mountains.
By 4 a.m., the crew was able to approach the sleeping animal, shackle his legs as a safety precaution and begin the process of returning the bear to the forest.
"He had a grey muzzle — he was an older guy. But he was big and fat and probably weighed more than 450 pounds," Simmons said.
The bear was carefully dragged down the hill, and Simmons said he was able to assist with safely lifting it into a fish and wildlife vehicle by means of his crane-mounted truck.
Fish and wildlife then transported the bear to the Los Padres National Forest where he was observed until his successful release at 8 a.m. on Sunday.
"When he woke up, he was drowsy but looked like he was ready to eat," said Simmons. "There are plenty of acorns out there for him."
Many outdoor recreational spots along the Central Coast remain open to the public with added restrictions to meet social distancing guidelines.
Coe assumes his new role as of April 25.
Lisa André covers Valley Life for Santa Ynez Valley News.
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