In the same state that has been going through a seemingly constant existential threat that comes with years upon years of drought and fire danger, wildlife officials and scientists now report that this summer and fall should be a time of reprieve and renewal.

“Storms resulted in a boost of native plant and wildlife species,” Ken Paglia, a spokesperson for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, told SFGATE.

But in the same breath, Paglia cautioned that what’s good for the ecosystem can also pose dangers and threats to those who are getting ready to explore nature again.  

“It’s a time to be mindful if you’re planning on heading out there,” he said. “We want to remind people who are getting out there this weekend and beyond to be a little extra vigilant. Make small adjustments to the way you’re using and interacting with nature.”

The upside? You may encounter thriving plant and animal life not seen here in decades.

Winter storms have brought more favorable “water and vegetation conditions in the spring and summer, which increases food resources and supports breeding and rearing habitats for animals,” Erin Chappell, CDFW’s Bay Delta regional manager, told SFGATE this week via email.

Here are a handful of things to watch out for as you take to the trails and reengage with nature.  


Bears are awake and hungry!

In the Lake Tahoe region, bears faced an extra long, extra snowy winter, and according to a statement released by the CDFW in late March, that population “will be emerging soon, and they will be hungry!”

The heavy snows this year will also inform the bears’ behavior, including pushing them to places that could result in more interaction with humans: “Bears in the Tahoe Basin will be in a difficult position this year as they come out of their dens and are met with historic snow loads across their habitat,” the CDFW release stated. “The grasses and other sprouts that would usually be greening up with the melting of snow won’t be available until much later in the spring. Bears will instinctively move to lower elevations to find those fresh greens.”

One segment of the bear population that is being seen more and more every year — and is most vulnerable right now — are orphaned cubs and yearlings. They are often skinny or small for their age and do not fear people, which can pose a risk to both bears and humans.

“These could just be hungry orphans looking for food, but increasingly we are seeing signs of neurologic disease like a slight head tilt or tremors,” Dr. Brandon Munk, senior wildlife veterinarian with the CDFW, said in a statement released earlier this week. “We think the condition is more significant as a risk for increased human-bear conflict than a risk to bear populations or to people.” 
Because bears will be on the hunt for food at lower elevations for the remainder of the spring and into the summer, those who are living in or visiting Tahoe should be extra aware of items that might attract bears, including bird feeders, pet food, food stored in coolers, garbage, and food or supplies stored in vehicles. And, of course, they should keep doors and windows shut and locked.

“Bears play an important role in Lake Tahoe’s ecosystem and allowing them access to human food and garbage is detrimental to natural processes in the region,” the March statement said. “Bears help spread berry seeds through their scat, transport pollen, clean up animals that died during the winter, eat insects, and provide other essential functions of nature.”

Scientists also say it’s key to remember that not only is human food bad for bears, but the way it’s stored can be devastating: “Bears will unknowingly eat indigestible items from human trash like foil, paper products, plastics, and metal that can damage their internal systems and even lead to death,” the statement said.

Those who come into contact with a bear can report it by using the CDFW’s Wildlife Incident Reporting System.

New wildlife and continued closures

At lower elevations, plant and animal life has also proliferated, wildlife experts say.

“We often say in the Bay Area there’s the privilege of living next to open space in what we call the urban edge,” Paglia said. “There’s privilege and responsibility.”

Thus far this spring, Californians have already experienced incidental contact with rattlesnakes and coyotes and have even spotted a rare plant species that hadn’t been seen for decades.  

As recovery and rebuilding of trails (and access to them) continues, it’s important to remember that when we go exploring, we are stepping into a different world than the one pre-storms, CDFW scientists said.  

“In particular, wet years help restore critically important and unique vernal pool habitats within the Bay Area and other parts of California. Vernal pools are a type of temporary wetland and support a high diversity of native plants and animals, such as the California tiger salamander,” Chappell said. “The pools are most striking in the spring when many specially adapted flowering plants are in full bloom.  

“Many vernal pool plant species have seeds that can remain dormant for many years, an adaptation that allows them to survive extended drought periods and flourish in wet years like this one.” 

Many trails still closed to the public 

While the wonder of seeing new things for the first time awaits, there are still hurdles to getting there.  

Road crews are still working 12 hours a day, seven days a week to reopen a stretch of Highway 1 between Carmel and Cambria affected by major mudslide events this winter. A seven-mile stretch of Highway 1 south of the Esalen Institute should remain closed until mid-July according to Caltrans.

“Additionally, travelers will encounter long-term signalized traffic control 0.8 miles north of the San Luis Obispo/Monterey County line where slope stabilization work continues,” a Caltrans statement from May 16 said.  

Farther south in the Los Padres National Forest near Santa Barbara, some popular trails — including Santa Paula Canyon and Punch Bowls — remain closed in the wake of the winter’s storms. 

Paglia noted closures can change daily, and part of planning a trip to the outdoors includes looking up where you’re going to see what’s open. And while he said now is an incredible time to get out and explore a replenished California, the first things to remember are to be aware and to exercise caution.  

“Be mindful,” he concluded. “Be careful where you put your hands and feet.”