San Francisco Chronicle Newspaper

Lake Tahoe's unwelcome houseguest -- the bear

Meredith May, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, December 24, 2006

Black bears in the Lake Tahoe area often encounter humans.
Chronicle photo by Carlos Avila Gonzalez

Removing bear from under house

Ann Bryant uses Pine-Sol to spoil a black bear's den under a home in Meyers.
Chronicle photo by Carlos Avila Gonzalez

bear running from under house

A bear runs out from under the deck of a house. Residents are reporting more bear encounters
as development around Lake Tahoe increases.
Chronicle photo by Carlos Avila Gonzalez

(12-24) 04:00 PST Lake Tahoe -- The red cabin being sold in the mountain town of Meyers seemed like the perfect winter retreat -- except for the faint sound of snoring coming from beneath the floorboards.

The sleeper was discovered this month when a real estate agent crawled under the deck to retrieve a dropped key -- only to awaken a 300-pound bear from hibernation.

The home did not pass inspection.

California black bears have always been a part of life in the Tahoe Basin. But increasingly they are leaving the backcountry to hibernate under homes, to stay close to the garbage cans and refrigerators that are becoming their primary source of food.

Black bears are by and large docile creatures, having never killed anyone in California or Nevada. But their growing dependence on man-made dens means the bears are routinely coming into contact with humans. Many are being killed by motorists or by homeowners with state permits to shoot the "nuisance" bears that repeatedly raid kitchens or hibernate under houses.

Ursine squatters are passing the tradition down to their cubs, and now second- and third-generation bears are returning annually to the "family home" to hibernate.

"A decade ago, this was a garbage story, but now the bears are getting smarter and finding other ways to rely on humans," said Jason Holley, a wildlife biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game.

Calls about bear activity are up threefold over a year ago, said Ann Bryant, who created the nonprofit Bear League eight years ago to prevent bear shootings by teaching locals and tourists how to keep the bears wild.

"This is the worst year ever," Bryant said.

Holley refers to Tahoe as "the perfect storm for bears."

The region is like a big buffet in the middle of prime bear habitat. It is populated by tourists or seasonal residents who don't always put their trash in bear-proof metal garbage bins. In some cases, they even lure the bears with treats for a picture. Many houses in Tahoe are unattended second homes, with food left in cupboards and no one to shoo a bear.

It makes sad evolutionary sense that bears would learn to steal food from homes, then start making winter dens under them, Holley said.

It's bad for the homeowner, who returns to find the front door peeled from its hinges and a demolished kitchen, but it's also bad for the animals -- city bears don't live as long as their wild counterparts.

Biologists are also alarmed because the bears' physiology is changing: Garbage-fed bears are ballooning in size, and some have stopped taking winter naps altogether. But the biologists' biggest concern is that "garbage" bears will lose their fear of people and become aggressive -- fatal black-bear maulings have occurred in other states.

Researchers estimate 400 bears have relocated from the mountains and are now living year-round on the California side of the Tahoe lakeshore, with another 200 on the Nevada side.

This year, bears are moving under homes after a bountiful spring. Without an early spring frost, there was a lot of fruit on the trees, more fish in thawed-out koi ponds and the opportunity to get a jump start on summer tourist garbage pickings.

"Now they are all looking for a place to hibernate ... why leave the food?" Bryant said.

With bears staking out dens under homes, there are more chances for confrontation, especially from a mother bear trying to protect her cubs.

"Whether intentionally or not, people are encouraging bears to frequent Tahoe, and a serious encounter is just around the corner," said Carl Lackey, a bear biologist with the Nevada Department of Wildlife who is helping with a 10-year study on how Tahoe bears are adapting to humans.

Bear encounters -- of the frightening but nonaggressive variety -- are increasing every year in the basin, said Lt. John Addoms of the Placer County Sheriff's Department.

"When I started 20 years ago, I remember I went on one bear call; now it's two to three times a day," he said.

Last year, one bear was responsible for breaking into 77 homes on the northwestern shore.

This year, Alpine Meadows has been especially hard hit, with 70 bear break-ins. Homewood has had 20, Meeks Bay six, Sunnyside seven, and higher in the mountains, there have been 25 bear break-ins in Talmont and 15 in the Ward Canyon area.

After fleeing from the home in Meyers, the real estate agent called Bryant of the Bear League. The 52-year-old naturalist rousts uninvited bears for homeowners with fireworks and a paintball gun.

She crawled under the deck one recent evening and discovered a 4-year-old female bear that had squeezed through a small opening in the foundation and torn the insulation from the heating ducts to make a nest.

"C'mon, bear, get outta there!" Bryant shouted, shining her flash light into the crawl space.

The bear paced, and snorted, then made a run for it. She reached her two enormous arms out of the hole, squeezed her brown body out and ran under the deck, through the snow and up a tree in the neighbor's yard.

Bryant ran growling after the bear, trying to sound as ferocious as possible, although chasing a bear is never recommended.

"You have to teach the bear that the den she chose is already occupied," Bryant said.

The hope is that the bear will modify its behavior and become more scared of homes and people. Sometimes that works. But if the bear has developed a taste for urban delicacies such as ice cream, dog food or birdseed, the animal rarely goes back to berries and grubs. Statewide, 66 bears were deemed public threats and, under permit, shot in 2004.

The California Department of Fish and Game doesn't relocate problem bears, because studies show the bears come right back to the neighborhood.

Lackey tracked eight bears that were relocated from South Lake Tahoe to eastern Nevada, and all came back within weeks -- including one that trekked 200 miles, over three mountain ranges separated by desert and sage.

"There are no effective laws to force people to bear-proof their homes, so while you may have one homeowner doing all the right things, their neighbor is leaving out honey for them," Lackey said.

Only a handful of bears are shot in Tahoe each year -- which is low for an area that has one of the highest bear densities in the nation. That's partly because there is a strong sentiment toward leaving the bears alone among Tahoe residents who chose to live there to be closer to nature. Also, the backlash after having a bear killed can border on what some state officials call ecoterrorism: Homeowners have told authorities that their homes were vandalized and their children threatened.

Bryant's work is highly political in Tahoe, but she says she does it solely to help bears and people coexist. Plus, she says, she's needed. Her 24-hour hot line can ring up to 75 times a day in the summer with calls for assistance with bears. She takes no fee for her services, and she's the only one she knows who is willing to get under the house with the bear. Despite a few scratches, she's emerged safely every time.

After being chased up a tree, the bear in Meyers had returned to the home the next morning. Bryant returned as well, this time with her two Russian-bred Karelian bear dogs, which are trained to chase big game.

Hearing their barks, the bear ran out from under the house and up a different tree. A carpenter sealed the opening where the bear had gotten in, and made a bed of nails near the entrance to deter her.

State officials don't condone Bryant's method of going under homes to face off with bears, and in a few instances have arrested her for taking injured or orphaned bears out of the wild to rehabilitate them.

She, in turn, has accused the state of setting out traps for problem bears but killing the first one that wanders in -- sometimes bears that have never damaged property.

Over time, the relationship has gotten better, and Bryant has been applauded for getting "Bear Crossing" signs posted around the lake, and for educating the public about the dangers of feeding bears. After negotiating with the Department of Fish and Game, she helped establish the state's first rehabilitation center for orphaned bear cubs at the Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care Center in 1999.

The center has returned five cubs to the wild, and a sixth will be released in February.

"Slowly, we are finding some common ground," Bryant said.

Domestic run-ins with bears in Tahoe were relatively rare until the late 1980s, during the tail end of a seven-year drought that dried up the berry and pine nut crop. Starving bears came down from the ridge to the shore and discovered how easy it was to eat leftovers. At the same time, new developments of "trophy cabins" sprang up deeper into the mountains, increasing garbage opportunities for bears.

Bears, catching on to a dependable source of food, began to hang around all year. They learned to turn door handles. They learned to peek through windows and look for refrigerators. Using tracking collars, Lackey and researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society found the bears had reduced their home range from 75 square miles to 4.

They also began to proliferate. Since 1982, the state's estimated black bear population has doubled to 30,000.

Lackey has discovered that bears hibernating under homes were not really hibernating the way they should anymore. They were continuing to wake up and eat -- on the weekly garbage day. Using tracking collars, he mapped lethargic bears moving from home to home following the garbage pickup schedules.

"Humans are the ones who are changing the bears' denning ecology, and we don't know what the long-term effects on the animals are going to be," Lackey said.

Carolyn Foster of Alpine Meadows is running out of ideas to bear-proof her home. After the first bear let himself in to drink all the soda in the fridge in 2004, she took steps to secure her house.

She bought a stronger front door, put beds of nails around her entrances and installed barking-dog motion sensors. She sprayed Pine-Sol and even male human urine on the outside of her house.

But in October, she returned home to discover a bear had broken in again and this time had emptied her upstairs refrigerator of chocolate and jam, smashing a bathroom window on his way out.

She lives alone and is terrified.

"I had two 400-pounders staring at me the other morning," she said. "I clashed some pans, but they just looked at me. They are getting bolder. My neighbor said a bear came in while they were eating popcorn and watching a movie."

Paul Arthur, the architect and caretaker of Squaw Valley Chapel, has had bears hibernating under the building since 2004.

The first time the cubs and mother appeared from under the deck, after a sermon on Earth Day, the delighted parishioners thought it was a divine coincidence.

But when the bear family returned in 2005 and broke into the basement, drinking all the champagne and tearing out the heating system, Arthur wasn't so charmed.

This month, a bear came back. Arthur called Bryant to scare it out before it could cause any more damage.

"The bears were here first, and we have to respect that," Arthur said. "But this wouldn't be happening if people weren't feeding the bears."

Keeping them away

Here are some tips for minimizing bear activity around a home:

Install electric fencing.

Put bear "unwelcome mats" -- plywood with protruding 3/4-inch nails beneath thresholds and windows.

Install motion lights, sprinklers and/or sirens.

Get a dog, or install barking-dog devices.

Keep an air horn or whistle handy to scare off bears.

Use bear spray, a hose or Super Soaker filled with water and a touch of vinegar to scare away a bear. Never chase the bear.

String empty cans filled with pebbles 3 feet off the ground to startle bears.

Leave the television or radio on -- bears try to avoid people.

Close the curtains so the bears can't see the refrigerator.

Saturate window sills and doorways with Pine-Sol or ammonia -- but never squirt it in bears' eyes, because it can blind them.

Source: "Living with Bears -- A Practical Guide to Bear Country" by Linda Masterson, 2006

Lake Tahoe's unwelcome houseguest -- the bear
Lured by the smells of restaurants and garbage bins, California black bears are coming out of the back country to the Tahoe Basin in record numbers. Now, some are hibernating under people's homes and summer cabins. Ann Bryant, executive director of the Bear League, rousts bears from under homes to prevent them from becoming "nuisance" bears and shot by homeowners. Slideshow produced by Carlos Avila Gonzalez and Meredith May. Chronicle photos by Carlos Avila Gonzalez

Click on the above link ( or go to the url below ) then click on the picture that says 'listen' to watch the slide show!!! Turn on your sound because Ann narrates the whole event as it is happening!!!

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