'What have we done to our bears?' Tahoe's bear tensions are high this summer

If you're visiting Tahoe, there's a few things you should know about bears

Sep. 10, 2020

Tensions between bears and humans in Tahoe this summer are running high.
Bear League

Tahoe is bear country. Anyone who has spent a chunk of time up here has their fair share of bear stories.

Here are a couple of mine. This summer, I ran into a mama bear and her cubs when I was riding my mountain bike on the trails behind a North Shore neighborhood. I saw another family saunter through the backyards of a West Shore neighborhood. When I walk my dog in the morning, I see the tell-tale signs of a bear’s presence from the night before — a car door swung open, trash in the driveway and trailing out to the street.

Last fall, when my parents weren't at their house in Tahoma, a hungry bear ripped their back door off its hinges, walked inside their house and helped itself to the pantry and the fridge. There was flour everywhere — and that was the easy part of the cleanup. We boarded up the ground-floor windows and all the doors. The next evening, the bear tried to break in again and nearly ripped off the piece of plywood we had nailed over the door frame.

Now, my parents have electric wires installed across their doors and windows to keep the bears out. For humans to coexist with bears in Tahoe, bear-proofing your house, your car and your garbage is a normal part of everyday life.

This summer, tensions between bears and humans are running especially high. The number of bear-related incidents reported to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife in Lake Tahoe are up. In El Dorado County, reports of conflict with bears are double compared to last summer and in Placer County there has been a 25 percent uptick.

Ann Bryant, Tahoe’s go-to bear expert, said this summer stands out as “busier, more hectic and more tragic” than all her 25 years of working with bears.

Bryant is executive director of the Bear League and the organization's phones start ringing first thing in the morning with people reporting bear sightings, break-ins, or worse. That’s true every year, but this year is “unique” for the level of unpreparedness among visitors, Bryant said.

“A lot of folks, unfortunately, do not have a clue about the rules for visiting and vacationing and staying in bear country,” Bryant said. “People call because they saw a bear and think he escaped, like, don’t they live in a zoo? What is a bear doing walking loose? It’s just been mind-boggling, the attitude.”

Why am I seeing so many bears in Tahoe?

In Tahoe, bears have been trained over the generations to come down from the higher elevations and hang out in the neighborhoods and towns where they can find food in easy-access places, including unsecured dumpsters or houses absent of humans. They’ve even been walking up to grocery stores, like the Safeway in Kings Beach, where automatic doors fling wide open and grant access to a buffet of fruit, veggies and snacks for the taking.

“How could any respectable bear say no to that? Of course he went in,” Bryant said.

Nowadays, a camera always seems to be nearby when a bear enters human turf. Last month, video footage of bears walking into stores or eating candy bars in the aisle of a gas station mini-mart surfaced on the internet. When Bryant sees those videos, she asks herself: "What have we done to our bears?"

When we make it that easy for bears to eat our food and our garbage or break into our house, Bryant said it’s like we’ve invited the bears to dinner. The thing is, these invitations usually end up bad for the bear.

Most bears in Tahoe are so used to humans that they aren’t aggressive. But if they were to feel surprised, or if a human blocked their exit or stood between a mama and her cubs, and that bear was to stand up on its hind legs and display the full weight of its 600-800 pounds — then the bear is in trouble.

“Once a bear either scratches or bites a person and makes physical contact with a human being, with his flesh, that bear is doomed to die,” said Bryant.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife currently says they are tracking one "public safety" bear at large in Tahoe. This means that the bear has been "identified as a threat to public safety" and law enforcement is looking for the bear to "remove that threat," said Peter Tira, a public information officer for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The basics of visiting bear country

Bryant’s Bear League was created to prevent those situations. She wants people to call her to learn the best practices of visiting bear country so the bears and the humans can both be safe.

The educational challenge is a tall order. It doesn’t take much for a bear to discover an overflowing trash can left in front of a vacation rental. And once a bear knows about that stash, he will probably return. Bryant deals with the aftermath of those types of situations long after the visitors have gone home.

“How can we get through to these kinds of people?” Bryant said. “The bear became the bad guy because people ignored what you should do: the rules for securing and taking care of your trash so you don’t attract the bears.”

There are a few fundamental things to know about bears in Tahoe.

If a trash can is full of garbage and left outside of a bear-proof container that has a latch, bears are bound to arrive and dig in. So make sure you are vigilant with your trash, and definitely don’t put it out on the street overnight.

When dog food is left in the car, it doesn’t matter if the car is locked or unlocked, a bear will find a way in (and probably destroy your car’s interior, too). So always check your car for kibble crumbs. Don’t forget the energy bar in the center console.

When kitchen windows are left open, bears are going to climb through and help themselves to the refrigerator, which they can recognize.

“Some of them think that screen windows keep bears out, but really all they keep out is mosquitos,” said Bryant.

Oh, and don’t leave your garage door open when you head off to the beach. “You’ll come home and there’s going to be a bear in there and it’s not his fault,” said Bryant. “You invited him.”

Lastly, be on the lookout for bears when you’re driving, especially at dawn and dusk. Accidents on the highways involving bears are so common they’re predictable, said Tira. And fall is when things get really busy. This time of year, bears are biologically triggered to eat a lot of food, increase their calories, and get ready for hibernation.

“So they’re out and about, actively looking for food right now,” said Tira. “That increases the potential for them being on the roads and getting struck by cars.”

Bryant is also looking ahead to winter. She says the stress of this summer, in particular, has been exhausting.

“I have just been hanging on with white knuckles,” she says, “waiting for winter to come, for the bears to go to sleep, for the fire danger to stop, for the people to leave, for normalcy to return, if it ever does.”

Julie Brown is a contributing editor at SFGATE covering Lake Tahoe. Email: julie.brown@sfgate.com | Twitter: @imjuliebrown

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