Tahoe Daily Tribune headerTahoe Daily Tribune header
Problem bears systematically killed

By Gregory Crofton
Article published November 19, 2002


With a dead mother bear loaded on the bed pick-up truck,
a county trapper hitches a bear trap with two cubs inside.
They also were killed.
Jim Grant/Tahoe Tribune

Two bear cubs smelled raw chicken and apples, climbed into a long steel tube to get at the food, and a spring-loaded door snapped shut behind them.

Their mother stood next to the trap on the deck of a Spring Creek tract cabin and wailed for her cubs.

They would soon be dead.

Two employees from the El Dorado County Agriculture Department arrived, shot the mother bear dead and loaded her fat-for-winter body into the bed of the pickup. Then they hitched the trap to their truck and made quick tracks back to Highway 89.

"There was $2,000 worth of damage in the (cabin)," said one trapper as his partner hitched the trap. The man would not identify himself, but spoke openly of his job. Bear blood dried on his right hand and wrist and a member of the BEAR League watched the scene with horror.

"We have a depredation permit. This is legal and lawful. So we took the bears. Do you guys ever get the whole story? All you guys ever print is 'poor little bear,'" he said holding up a photo of a kitchen trashed by a bear.

The two bears were trapped and their mother was killed Monday morning. The incident took place near a cabin on U.S. Forest Service land north of Camp Richardson called Spring Creek tract. All three bears were killed legally because of a permit issued by the California Department of Fish and Game.

A South Lake Tahoe couple contacted the El Dorado County Department of Agriculture to do the work. Fish and Game issues the permit but leaves it up to the owner or another party to execute it. The trap was set on Friday. The cubs were caught early Monday.

John and Kay Henderson requested the permit after they found a sliding dead bolt on their back door had been smashed through, their kitchen ransacked for stock sweets and bear feces on top of their toilet and in two places on their living room rug.

After the trappers had gone about 10 a.m., the 57-year-old retired teachers sat in the living room of the cabin, glassy-eyed but not happy or sad.

Kay Henderson, after a long pause, said, "I remain convinced we did the right thing."

Earlier she explained their position.

"We freely admit we did have food in the house," she said. "It is our feeling we should not have to remove the food from our house. This is human territory. If you leave food outside, I beg to differ, that's asking for it."

John Henderson said in the roughly 50 years his family has had the cabin, last week was the first bear incident, even though a cabin 50 yards behind theirs was broken into at least twice in the fall of 2000.

"As long as the bear population is increasing, bears are an increasing problem," he said.

Patrick Foy, spokesman for Fish and Game, said in the last 10 days the agency investigated three calls at Spring Creek and issued the one permit to the Hendersons.

In one case, a bear and two cubs appeared on a deck. Residents, fearing for the safety of their children, requested a permit but were denied. The other report involved a piece of plywood that was ripped from a cabin.

The incident at the Henderson cabin was more serious because it involved the bear relying on learned behavior to lean against the door and break the bolt, Foy said.

"We had property damage plus forcible entry to a house through a locked door," he said.

Bear wardens in California and Nevada use techniques to chase off bears before a permit to kill is issued. But when public safety is threatened or major property damage occurs, bears die.

"If they break into a house and I know which bear it is, yeah it's a dead bear," said Carl Lackey, biologist at Nevada Division of Wildlife.

On Monday at Spring Creek, the cubs caught in the trap were killed because keeping them caged until a place is found for them is not realistic, Foy said.

"You can't really go catch a bear and find a zoo for them because every zoo that wants a bear has a bear," Foy said. "And when you have the mother taking cubs into a house and essentially teaching them where to find food you have a perpetual problem."

The BEAR League, an organization which formed five years ago, had a representative at the scene. Mary Kay, 60, of South Lake Tahoe heard the trappers shoot the mother bear.

Kay shook and was in tears when the bears were carted away.

"This was a morning I hoped I'd never have to be part of. It was horror," she said. "What I saw today, no one ever should have to witness. I know this bear."

Kay, a retired Tahoe City teacher, lives near Camp Richardson, not far from Spring Creek. She keeps tabs on bears in the area and estimates about 12 live near the creek, including the three dead ones.

Two years ago a bear, possibly the same one shot Monday, twice broke into a cabin behind the Henderson cabin and trashed its kitchen. Kay said she went to Spring Creek every day drizzling Pine-Sol around the cabin door to ward off the bears and keep them safe. She was told by the owners of the cabin that they had been hand-feeding cubs prior to the break-ins.

"They're not evil, they just don't understand," Kay said of the Hendersons, who exchanged waves goodbye with Kay as they drove back to their home at the Tahoe Keys.

"I reminded them that this is national forestland they are living in, and according to the Forest Service, preference should be given to the animals," Kay said.

Fish and Game, which has jurisdiction over wildlife on Forest Service land, said it recommends food be removed from cabins when they are vacant. The agency also tells homeowners to invest in a bear-proof garbage container, keep garbage and food out of garages and to not take garbage outside until the morning it is scheduled to be picked up.

On the Nevada side of the basin, Division of Wildlife this season has dealt with 23 bears, four of which were put to death. Fourteen more were hit and killed by motorists.

In California, 13 bears were killed by motorists compared to seven in 2000 and 2001. Fish and Game was not able to estimate how many bears it has put down in the Lake Tahoe area, but at least one other bear was shot and killed this season. The bear had been Dumpster-diving at a state park outside of Truckee and took a threatening stance toward a game warden before it was killed.

-- Gregory Crofton can be reached at (530) 542-8045 or by e-mail at gcrofton@tahoedailytribune.com