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Tahoe's black bears are awake early and they're hungry. That's not a good thing. What can you do?

By Joanne Hartman
Sierra Sun

April 20, 2007


Alongside her trusty four-footed companion — Marvin, an 8-year-old porcupine — Ann Bryant instructs wide-eyed Glenshire preschoolers how to live in harmony with Tahoe-Truckee wildlife.

“Marvin wanted me to tell you all thank you, and remember not to feed the bears and appreciate them. They’re one of our neighbors, too,” Bryant reminds the 4- and 5-year-olds as she picks Marvin up like a baby to place him back in his red wheelbarrow.

With bear season quickly approaching, Bryant, founder and executive director of the BEAR League, gears up for another summer of frantic phone calls, bear chases and public education.

“It seems like what’s happening every year: It starts out slow with sightings and grazing. As it gets into being summer season and visitors coming ... that’s when we start inviting the problem,” Bryant says.

But the BEAR League has also received bear calls throughout the winter, a sign that fewer of the animals are opting to sleep through the colder months. Why? Because now food is readily available throughout the entire year, Bryant says.

“Actually some bears never went in,” says Cheryl Millham, director of the South Shore-based animal rehabilitation organization, Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care. “They follow garbage.”

And because this winter was a temperate one, the bears that did hibernate are already waking up. South Lake Tahoe and Alpine Meadows have already seen a lot of bear activity, says California Fish and Game wildlife biologist Jason Holley, but the brief cold spell will put the bears back down for just a bit.

“Bear season is here again and everybody needs to take personal responsibility for their actions in bear country,” Holley says.

BEAR League history
Bryant is available almost 24 hours a day to educate homeowners, visitors and campers on how to prevent wild animals from damaging homes and property. She is known throughout the Tahoe Basin as a dynamic and eccentric individual who has dedicated herself to protecting wildlife through education, pursuing a goal of “people living in harmony with bears.”

“We all live in the forest, yes, but we have our homes,” she says. “They [the bears] have to respect our presence just like we have to respect their presence in the woods.”

Be bear aware

• Never Feed the Bears! Not Ever! Report any neighbors or visitors who are doing so to the BEAR League.

When camping

• Never keep items such as food, toothpaste, candy, gum, perfume or lip gloss in your tent or sleeping bag.

• Store food in a bear-proof container or locker; do not store in your tent.

• The trunk of your car is not secure.

• Clean everything after preparing meals.
• Use canisters for food storage when backpacking.

Taking out the trash

• When possible, do not leave trash out overnight before pick up.

• Go to for a list of tested bear-resistant containers.

In your home

• Make birdfeeders inaccessible to bears or take them down.

• Do not leave windows or doors open. Screens are not bear-proof.

• Be sure doors are solid wood or metal and install heavy deadbolts.

• Spray PineSol on window and door casings to mask food odors coming from inside. Repeat often.

• Check out deterrrents at and think seriously about getting a motion-activated, barking dog device.

• Replace single-pane with double-pane windows.

• If your house is not permanently occupied, remove all food between visits or rentals. Bears smell spices, teas and other food through the walls.

• Securely block access to under-house crawl spaces.

• Leave lights, radio or TV on when not at home.

• Don't leave pet food outside and don't feed pets outside.

• Don't talk nicely to bears who come near your house. Make them feel threatened and un-welcome.

• Call the BEAR League at 525-PAWS or the California Department of Fish and Game, with bear questions or concerns.

Bryant is assisted by a variety of creatures in her mission to save the bears, including Marvin the porcupine, her bear-chasing duo of Karelian bear dogs Dmytro and Anya and a team of local volunteers.

But it was her own anger that motivated her to start the BEAR League in 1998. Bryant was devastated after a neighborly bear was killed by a trapper.

“I was absolutely infuriated that this would happen to a resident of Tahoe,” Bryant says emphatically as she watches her dogs wrestle on a Tahoe beach near her Homewood home.

Mother bear and cub

A sow and her cub walk through a meadow off Highway 267 earlier this month. Emma Garrard/ Sierra Sun

Two frightened bears survived the death of the mother bear, but one for only a minute. One cub was captured and killed while the other hid frightened in the trees. Bryant took in the orphaned cub, named him Oliver, and thus the BEAR League was born.

“The main thing is not just to save the bears. Our mission is to educate people on how to coexist,” she says.

Trends in Tahoe’s black bears
As bear populations increase statewide, from about 12,000 in the 1980s to over 30,000 now, conflicts between humans and bears are also on the rise, says Fish and Game’s Holley.

And even though the majority of Tahoe visitors and residents are armed with wildlife-friendly practices, there are a handful of others who make bear problems for everyone. They leave garbage out, do not secure their homes, or intentionally feed the bears.

“The communities are getting better, getting wiser, about bear management. But like I say, it’s a one-bad-apple approach,” Holley says.

Bryant has been monitoring bears in the basin for more than eight years and notes that the intelligent omnivore has become increasingly comfortable around people — and she says that it’s not a good thing.

“They no longer are afraid of us. That’s the biggest part of the problem because we’ve allowed that,” Bryant says.

Bears belong in the forest feeding on insects, not lounging in the garden of a Tahoe Vista home snacking on last night’s leftovers, she adds.

“Don’t just sit back and take pictures. We’ve got to get with the program ... most of what’s happening is completely human related — people not taking responsibility for being in a bear’s habitat.”

Millham agrees that the rise in human-bear problems is the result of encroaching development and the associated garbage. Bears now recognize lunch coolers and refrigerators as quick and easy food sources.

“Bears are getting smarter in how to get food,” Millham says. “You just have to learn to take care of your own stuff, and we can co-exist with all wildlife.”

Another, more alarming, trend is the declining number of ­bears entering hibernation.

“We are seeing more bears that never fully go down, but actually not a lot of that activity this winter,” Holley says. “If you have a bear that’s never hibernating that means he’s actively eating all the time ... they become even more reliant on people food. As bears become habituated their likelihood of living as wildlife is greatly diminished ... we’re after keeping our bears wild.”

2 cubs in a tree




Alex Close/ Sun News Service

Improper garbage storage is illegal in both Placer and El Dorado counties, and homes where bears have broken into trash cans are required to purchase bear-proof containers. But people continue to leave homes and trash barrels unsecured.

“Most humans are too lazy, they don’t want to spend the money. They’d rather see the bear killed,” Millham says.

When bears cause damage to either livestock or property, California Fish and Game may issue a depredation permit that allows the homeowner to trap and kill the bear.

But depredation permits should be a last resort, say agency officials.
“It’s the last-case scenario — we don’t like to see a bear killed,” Holley explains. “At the same time we realize certain bears become incorrigible at times.”

The bottom line, according to officials with all three organizations, is that people must learn how to live in accordance with Tahoe’s wildlife — take care of garbage, remove attractants from unoccupied homes, and never, ever feed a bear.

“It’s all about awareness and people taking personal responsibility in bear country,” Holley says.

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