TAHOE, Calif. - Bears, bears and more bears. These days at Lake Tahoe, it's all about the bears. Whether you adore them at any cost, are afraid of them, or want them all gone, they are a major topic and sometimes a hotly debated one. Rumors and folklore abound.
It was a natural for us at the Gatekeeper's Museum: We asked visitors what they wished they could learn about at the museum. Time and again the answer came back: bears! Thus, the "Ursus Among Us: The American Black Bear in the Tahoe Basin" exhibit was born. It has been a somewhat complicated birth.
First, what the exhibit is not. It is not a BEAR League exhibit. It is not a Department of Fish and Game exhibit.
It is a history exhibit, presenting information about both natural and cultural histories of the Tahoe Basin. The exhibit is built around two themes: The American Black Bear Up Close and Personal, the history of black bears as wild animals (did you know at one time there were three bear species here?).
Bears and People: It's Complicated, the history of people and bears here, from ancient Washoe times through the present day (did you know ancient Washoe people had to contend with both black bears and grizzlies?).
We worked with CA Department of Fish and Game staffers Mario Klip, Jason Holley and Marc Kenyon; BEAR League founder Ann Bryant; CA State Parks Sector Superintendent Brian Barton and "Bear Ranger" Lisa Fields, Washoe Tribe officials and more while designing the exhibit. These groups sometimes disagree, but came together to help us and contribute to this informational exhibit. All are very pleased with the result.
Our research revealed a fascinating surprise about Tahoe Basin bears. We all know that in addition to the American Black Bear, the basin also had the California Grizzly (the bear on the California flag). The last California grizzly was killed in 1922. However, in the last Ice Age, the Giant Short Faced Bear roamed North America! Standing 6 feet tall at the shoulder, this giant bear was especially prevalent in California. It was startling to realize that today we deal with only one of three historic species - and the smallest, most docile of the three at that.
The history of black bears as wild animals section features traditional panels rendered using metal sculpture, accompanied by three video clips shot by an Ely, Minn. research team. The clips cover bears from birth through their first year, bear communication, and what bears eat in the wild, respectively. The history of bears and people in the basin starts with the ancient Washoe people, through the arrival of European Americans, through the present day. With this exhibit, we have learned about both bears and people.
Next week: What have we learned about black bears as wild animals?
The Gatekeeper's Museum is located 130 West Lake Blvd. by the "Y" in Tahoe City. Visit www.northtahoemuseums.org or call 530-583-1762 for information.
- Marguerite Sprague is the executive director of the North Lake Tahoe Historical Society and has a bachelor's degree in biology with an animal behavior emphasis.