ALTADENA, Calif. (USAToday.com) - Cheryl Pawelski of Altadena, Calif., was talking on a conference call when she noticed something odd in her backyard out of the corner of her eye.
"All of a sudden, there was a bear walking towards my back porch," she said. "It was pawing at the pool."
The owner of Omnivore Records stayed indoors that May afternoon and took pictures. She yelled but the bear didn't budge. After losing interest in the water, the bear jumped the fence and walked back into nearby hills -- just 15 miles from downtown Los Angeles. Pawelski called police, who were already tracking a mother bear and two cubs nearby.
Pawelski is one of hundreds of people who have seen a backyard bear this summer. More than 200 sightings have made local news reports, the majority in New Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
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Thousands more of such encounters don't make news but are logged by state agencies as "nuisance bears" or "human-bear conflicts." Some states don't count such events because they are so plentiful and residents aren't fazed.
But in 13 states with detailed recordkeeping, USA TODAY found the number of such encounters rose 23% from 2010 to 2012, to 14,882.
Biologists say the U.S. bear population is growing, especially in the East, as bears extend their range across heavily populated states such as Pennsylvania, Maryland and New Hampshire.
In states such as Florida, where both human and bear populations are growing, such conflicts rose 47% to 6,188 during the same two-year period.
Bears have shut down schools, frightened hospital workers and brought neighborhoods together to take pictures of the bear on their street. Many bears keep a low profile, but sightings have generated social media buzz on Twitter such as "@RealBucksBear", "@BlackBearSpoted", and "#Gainesvillebear."
Bear biologists say that males in their second year, known as yearlings, are most often found getting stuck in beehives and destroying property. Their mothers, known as sows, prepare for the next mating season by running them off to fend for themselves.
"These yearling males are like teenage boys -- they're punks," said Andrew Timmins, New Hampshire Bear Project leader. "They have no social status and they get themselves into trouble and that's often why they have to sneak around to get food."
Male bears are more inclined to roam than females, said Stephanie Tucker, a North Dakota wildlife biologist who studies fur-bearing animals.
After winter hibernation, they emerge hungry. This is often when backyard bear sightings begin to increase, said Mike Porras, a spokesman for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
"They tend to want to eat, sleep and stretch a little bit," said Larry Ragonese, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. "They're looking for food after they wake up, not people. They're looking for the pie in the windowsill, so to say."
Bears will travel far for food, sometimes up to 100 miles a day. Lured by the smell of bacon from a neighbor's open door, two cubs showed up atop Gina Davis' fence one Saturday morning in May in Snoqualmie Ridge, Wash.
"We joke and say, 'Who wouldn't run across the fence for some bacon?' " she said.
Davis said backyard bears are not new in Washington, but it was nerve-wracking because she has kids.
"We're not ignorant to the fact that the bears were here first and we've just encroached on their space," she said. "We just have to be cautious and protect our families."
Wildlife officials recommend accepting bears and watching from a distance. They suggest:
• Following garbage ordinances. In some cities, containers must be bear-resistant or stored in a garage.
• Putting away all food, including bird feeders and pet dishes.
• Fencing chicken coops.
• Putting away coolers at campsites.
Bear biologists say that while bears may disrupt suburban life, they aren't dangerous.
Bears pose a bigger problem for farmers, and some states offer compensation for agricultural damage.
In Utah, bears caused $108,443 in damage in 2012. The average payout was about $1,000, according to state wildlife officials. New Hampshire residents can rent an electric fence from the state parks agency to protect crops from bears.
"When black bears become habituated to food from human sources and have lost their natural fear of people, they can become a threat to human health and safety," Porras said. "This is not because they are after the human, but because they are large, powerful, wild animals that might react unpredictably as they search for a meal in the presence of people."
Several states have bear management plans that include hunting quotas. In New Jersey, hunting and programs to educate people about bears, reduced human-bear conflicts by 29% from 2010 to 2012.
"We don't want to say we're winning the war," Ragonese said. "We believe there's a place in our state for black bears. ... The place for them, however, is not downtown Newark or Jersey City."
To be "bear aware," wildlife officials suggest:
• Don't turn and run when you see one. Walk backward and look at the bear.
• Don't harass them.
• Don't approach or try to pet them.
Bear relocations have decreased and are often a last resort because bears have sharp memories and return to the same area year after year. Biologists say people need to learn to live around bears.
"Tolerance and a little bit of willingness goes a long way," Timmins said. "Animals are not hard to live with. We just need to learn."
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