Drought brings heat and lack of rain, and it might also bring more bears to the basin this season.
Last year's mild winter means more cubs in the spring. And with little rain and warm temperatures, the land is dry and food scarce. According to Department of Fish and Game Biologist Shelly Blair, the conditions could force more bears to resort to the easy pickings at dumpsters, straining relations between the animals and property owners.
"It was such a dry spring, so these animals came out of hibernation early and they were looking for food," Blaire said.
For John Brissenden, owner of Sorensen's Resort in Hope Valley, it's already been a bad year. According to the DFG, three bears have been shot or euthanized on or around the Sorensen's property since May. Brissenden said they've had bears at 10 of their cabins and had to evacuate diners one night when a bear came into the cafe.
"Public safety is a huge issue for us. So is the animal wildlife. We've coexisted with bears here for 30 years, " Brissenden said, who founded Sorensen's with his wife 31 years ago.
The two bears killed in June had been rehabilitated at the Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care facility. Ann Bryant, the founder and executive director of the BEAR League, said she's never seen so many bears killed in such a short amount of time and in such a limited area.
"If it's a bear problem, it's usually only one bear. This is a classic example of a business problem, not a bear problem. It's a little bit beyond belief that you can blame the bears," Bryant said.
But Brissenden isn't the only one in the area who has reported a bear problem. Cabin owner Jeremy Magrath said the bears seem to have gotten bolder recently, something he attributes to the rehabilitated bears placement and a couple troublesome vacation renters in the neighborhood who consistently left trash on their deck. Magrath and his family have owned the property, just across the street from Sorensen's, for about 50 years.
"The issues that came up were the rehabilitated bears that were put too close to us, and then we had the vacation rentals that weren't on the program. The culprit is the new type of rental where the Internet rents a property from night to night. It's devastating to an area," Magrath said.
The placement of the yearlings, sloppy vacation rentals where landlords don't regulate and enforce proper trash disposal plus the warm spring all contributed to the problem, he countinued.
Brissenden agreed that those factors all added up to "the perfect storm of bears" that hit Sorensen's this spring.
If there's one point all the groups agree on, it's that the bears shouldn't have been released so close to the resort. It was setting the animals up for failure, Bryant said.
"The bottom line is that Fish and Game didn't get any support from the Forest Service. The Forest Service said, 'No, you cannot release it on our land.' Fish and Game has a postage stamp-size property in Hope Valley where they were able to release it. Unfortunately, it was very close to Sorensen's Resort," LTWC Secretary and Treasurer Tom Millham said.
The California DFG outlines a three-step policy before issuing a depredation permit. In the first category, a bear wanders into a populated area, but is scared away by noise, pepper spray or another deterrent. In the second category, the bear becomes a nuisance, but still isn't reported as causing any property damage. In this case, the owner or tenant has to clean up any trash and bear-proof any food storage areas that might be attracting the animal.
It's not a law to close windows, but it might be a necessary corrective measure at this stage, Millham said.
"We tell people that screens keep mosquitoes out, they don't keep a bear out," Millham said.
According to Millham and Bryant, the BEAR League and LTWC sent trained volunteers down to scare the yearlings away when they heard about the bears at Sorensen's. Both said they didn't think the resort was doing enough to scare the animals away before resorting to the third step: getting a depredation permit.
"They tried some aversion methods, not many. We sent one of our volunteers out there with a paintball gun. You get the noise and the sting, and usually that works. They wouldn't even let us on the property," Millham said.
Sorensen's has their own crew to scare the bears away, Brissenden said. And though they tried multiple times to avert the bears with nonlethal methods and called in Alpine County law enforcement, the bears just kept coming back.
"It wasn't a thoughtless act. They made a huge attempt. It gets to the point where you're afraid to be in your home," Blair said.
Though Blair's not directly responsible for where rehabilitated bears are released, she said that Hope Valley was really the only option for the two LTWC cubs. The animals had to be released on DFG lands.
"We don't have a lot of areas anymore where we don't have people. We were being optimistic that these animals would start foraging naturally," Blair said.
As July rolls into August, and with Douglas County declared a drought disaster area by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Bryant predicts conditions are going to get much worse. It's been a typical year in South Lake Tahoe so far, but more and more bears are going to be looking for food as the area continues to dry out, she said.
"We're bracing for the onslaught. It's going to get worse, it's going to be an epidemic," Bryant said.