Black bears are a large part of what defines Tahoe, but they can become a source of controversy as well. Bear break-ins are becoming commonplace and may result in a bear's demise. California state law requires the Department of Fish and Game to issue property owners a permit to kill a bear upon request, as long as their life or property remains in danger. Emotions are running high among many residents who want home invasions and the killing of bears to stop. As a bear biologist, I hate to see these animals killed because I know that in most cases, misguided actions from humans caused this behavior.
From a wildlife management perspective, the Lake Tahoe Basin is one of the most challenging areas of the state to manage. This time of year, DFG gets hundreds of calls about bears breaking into homes, rummaging through trash and scavenging for food at campgrounds. They're no longer the majestic creature of the forest; they've been reduced to a destitute, hollow shell of their great potential, scrounging for scraps. That's hardly what I call a wild bear.
The problem begins with campgrounds. Area visitors generally have little to no knowledge of wildlife behavior. I've witnessed campers photographing their families surrounding bears feasting on food carelessly left out at campsites. I've heard people laugh at bears with trash can lids stuck on their head from scavenging through campground garbage.
Once these irresponsible campers leave, Tahoe homeowners and businesses are left to deal with the fallout. Habituated adult bears don't "unlearn" such behavior on their own. They will take increasingly bold steps to procure food, and once they learn to gain entry into homes, we are left with no alternatives.
Weighing up to 600 pounds, bears must consume large quantities of food in order to sustain themselves. In drought years like this one, bears are often forced to wander farther into urban areas just to meet their daily caloric requirements. We can't change bear caloric needs, but we can change our habits. Those of us who live and recreate in bear country must learn how to eliminate temptations for bears by properly securing food and trash. If not, nothing's going to change.
Because there are just two biologists and a small contingent of wardens assigned to the five counties around the Tahoe Basin, DFG has developed unique partnerships with local organizations to help disseminate proper messaging.
Last fall, we launched a "Bear Aware" public education campaign focused on the Tahoe basin. We partnered with the BEAR League, REI and California Houndsmen for Conservation to sponsor a youth film contest, in which local high school students produced public service announcements to educate residents and visitors how to properly secure their food and trash and bear-proof cabins and residences. The top six films can be viewed at the "Ursus Among Us" exhibit at the Gatekeeper's Museum in Tahoe City. We're looking to expand that competition this year.
We have also partnered with local businesses to help spread the Bear Aware message. Meek's Lumber is helping us educate homeowners and renters on how to bear-proof their homes, and Safeway has allowed us to staff a Bear Aware information table in their store. At the Forest Service campground in Tahoe, our Natural Resource Volunteers are distributing brochures to campers to provide them with tips on how to keep bears out of their campsites. Soon we hope to be partnering with a nonprofit organization to distribute Bear Aware door hangers to residents.
But we still need more help - and that's where the residents of Tahoe come in. Please download our Bear Aware brochure for homeowners at http://tinyurl.com/basinbears, and use that checklist to ensure your property is free of bear attractants. Then, share this information with your neighbors. Hold a neighborhood meeting to talk about solutions and how you can ensure that your neighborhood doesn't become a refuge for nuisance bears. Consider pooling resources to purchase bear-proof dumpsters that will discourage bears from seeking an easy meal from homes or businesses.
We are all stewards of our state's wildlife resources, and each of us must be willing to make a personal commitment to wildlife conservation by educating ourselves and others. Together we can keep Tahoe's bears wild and alive for generations to come.
- Marc Kenyon is the bear program coordinator for the California Department of Fish and Game.