Sacramento Bee

Making life bearable

Tahoe woman tries to keep fur from flying

By Todd Milbourn - Bee Staff Writer
Published 12:00 am PDT Saturday, July 28, 2007
Story appeared in MAIN NEWS section, Page A1

CARNELIAN BAY -- Bears famously fancy honey and picnic baskets. But they dine just fine on day-old tacos.

Melinda Potter was puttering around her Lake Tahoe cabin this week when a black bear smashed through the vestibule and dove snout-first into a garbage bin. The cub rummaged past Coke cans and banana peels before snatching the Taco Bell leftovers.

"I looked over and there she was, all black and fluffy as can be, running away with a taco wrapper flapping from her mouth," Potter said.

The bear scampered up a tree for a post-snack nap. Exasperated, Potter did what many Tahoe denizens do after a bear eats their taco, or climbs into their car, or sneaks under their deck -- she called Ann Bryant.

Bryant is Lake Tahoe's bear whisperer, even if her form of ursine communication generally involves yelling and stomping her feet. Bryant, the founder of Tahoe's BEAR League, and her army of 150 volunteers are on call 24 hours a day to soothe human nerves or escort bears to the wilderness with a dose of tough love.

Bryant's phone is ringing off the hook these days.

Clashes between humans and bears in Tahoe are at an all-time high, according to Bryant and the California Department of Fish and Game.

Don't blame the bears, Bryant says.

Food for bears is dwindling in the forest. Thanks to a drought, berries are shriveling on the vine. Water is in short supply. And last month's Angora fire charred 3,100 acres and a lot of bear foraging ground.

Bears have been roaming into populated areas. Like tourists to nearby casinos, they're drawn by the prospect of all-you-can-eat dining.

Black bears have never killed a person in California or Nevada, Bryant said. Yet they are often lumped with their more ferocious cousin, the grizzly.

"People come up here for vacation, to see the beauty, but they forget this is the wilderness," Bryant said. "They see a bear, they panic and want to kill him. ... We're teaching everyone how to coexist."

Tahoe black bears feast on spreads like the one at a house Bryant visited last week, along Ward Canyon Road.

A wooden "Bears Welcome" sign hangs by its front door. Bryant rolled her eyes.

Inside, the refrigerator and pantry had been stocked.

bear descends tree
A black bear descends from her perch Thursday following a nap after the bear broke into a cabin at Lake Tahoe while the resident was home and filched a taco. A drought and the Angora fire have disrupted bears' food supply.

 Bears are attracted to anything  edible or smelly. But eating  human  food causes bears to  lose their  natural ways and  often results in  death.

Here's how to help:

• Keep food indoors or in   airtight, odor-free containers.

• Put away picnic leftovers; clean   barbecue grills.

• Keep pet food inside and avoid   using bird feeders.

• While hiking, make noise to   avoid a surprise encounter.

• Never keep food in your tent.

• Use bear-proof garbage cans   whenever possible or store   garbage in secure locations.

• Never approach a bear or pick   up a bear cub.

• If you encounter a bear, do not   run.  Face the animal, make   noise and try to appear as   large as possible.

Source: CA Department of Fish and Game

Bryant scared off three bears, but they came back looking for seconds and thirds. They had trashed the house, leaving a gaping hole in the door, condiments strewn across the kitchen linoleum. Pantry doors were ripped from their hinges.

"This is what really worries me," said Bryant, surveying the wreckage. "You have a mother teaching her cubs that this is how you forage. You break down a door, you break into somebody's house, get into the refrigerator."

Bryant said this mama and her two cubs, too comfortable with humans for their own good, will likely one day get struck by a car or become such a nuisance that a property owner will get a permit to kill them.

A gentle vegetarian whose cabin is also home to enough dogs, squirrels and porcupines for a small petting zoo, Bryant traces her love of animals to her childhood in southern Minnesota. Her father was a hunter. Bryant gravitated toward her mother's beliefs.

"Before he'd go out on a hunt, my mother would say, 'Bye, honey. I love you. I can't wait 'til you get back. But remember, I'm on the deer's side,' " Bryant recalled.

After moving to Tahoe, Bryant worked as a wildlife rehabilitator. She came to know bears quite well.

She even raised one.

A decade ago, Bryant took in a male cub and raised him on nuts, produce and crawdads from the lake. The bear's mother and sibling had been killed after repeatedly lunching on the garbage of one of Bryant's neighbors.

"He was depressed," Bryant said of Oliver, as in Twist, the orphan. "I was all that he had."

Bryant taught Oliver all she could, then did what all bear mothers must do: She sent him off on his own into the forest.

"I would see him in the woods sometimes," Bryant said. "He never posed a threat, he never was a nuisance. He never came up to any person -- except me."

"It was a beautiful friendship," she continued. And "every bit of it was illegal."

Bryant isn't one to let the law get between her and her bears. In 2001 she was charged, under poaching laws, for taking a sickly cub from the wild. The case drew global media attention before the charges were dropped.

"Yeah, they've arrested me for all sorts of things," Bryant said. "But they don't anymore. They realize I'm not going away."

Jason Holley, wildlife biologist for the state Department of Fish and Game, doesn't always agree with Bryant's methods, but he's convinced she has the bears welfare at heart.

"We part ways on some things," he said. "But anybody who's getting the message out to keep bears wild is doing a service to the community."

Bryant's BEAR League was instrumental in getting builders to include bear-proof garbage bins with new homes and persuading the state to place "Bear Crossing" street signs throughout the region.

Still, Bryant spends much of her time tracking and coaxing wayward bears.

The taco-eating cub in Melinda Potter's tree finally climbed down, rested and ready to run. She led Bryant and four volunteers on an hourlong chase.

The bear scampered up and down trees, over fences, along the lake shore and through the backyard of a multimillion-dollar resort.

Playing children screamed a chorus of terror and awe.

"Out of the way!" Bryant yelled, as the bear took a detour through a playground. "Bear coming through!"

Eventually, the volunteers managed to chase the bear into a tree in a secluded area, away from traffic and tourists who documented the pursuit with camera phones.

Bryant gazed up at the cub, worried that the fast food had whetted the bear's appetite.

"She got a bite of that taco," Bryant said. "She's up there dreaming about it."

About the writer:
The Bee's Todd Milbourn can be reached at (916) 321-1063 or

bear break-in Ann Bryant peers into the kitchen of a Lake Tahoe cabin where a mother bear and her cubs broke in for food. Bryant heads the BEAR League, which tries to educate people and protect bears.
Ann Bryant Ann Bryant and her group are always on call.
bear hit by car Ann Bryant, second from left, and three other BEAR League volunteers carry away a young male black bear near Barker Pass west of Lake Tahoe. The bear had been hit and killed by a vehicle.

chasing a bear off

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A young black bear scampers from BEAR League volunteers at a beach at Tahoe Vista following a taco raid at a nearby cabin. The bear eventually climbed up a tree in a secluded area following an hourlong chase. The BEAR League -- Bear Education Aversion and Response -- has 150 volunteers who are receiving up to 200 calls a day about bear encounters.