October 24, 2012 | Back to: News

Ursus Among Us: It's complicated

TAHOE CITY, Calif. - Recap: The Gatekeeper's Museum's current Ursus Among Us: The American Black Bear in the Tahoe Basin exhibit, presents information about basin black bears around two historical themes: bears as wild animals, and people living with bears, from ancient Washoe times through today.

Exhibit advisors include both authorities and volunteers, all involved with the basin's human-bear scene. CA Department of Fish and Game (DFG), CA State Parks, the Washoe Tribe and the BEAR League came together-despite their occasional differences -to help contribute to this exhibit. All are pleased with the result.

Ancient times

In ancient times, the Washoe people instructed children to behave differently when encountering bears, depending upon the species, due to their contrasting temperaments. Children were told to drive off the smaller, more easily frightened black bear, but to "stand still as sticks" when the larger, grumpier grizzly bear appeared.

Important to remember, when Washoe families of old lost their food to a hungry bear, there was no store from which to get replacement. They must have had effective strategies to safeguard food: they co-existed with both bear species for millennia.

The Euro-American settlers arriving in the 1800s and later brought new tools, including bear traps and guns, and a different approach to bears. For better or worse, their approach, which favored control over co-existence, changed the basin.

Nowadays the situation has become complicated. The black bear population has increased (more on that next week) and all of them are hungry. Human development in the basin has mushroomed, and is multi-faceted. There are year-round residents, summertime residents, and visitors, and all are having bear encounters. Their expectations and reactions can differ significantly. This has led to strong disagreements and, at times, rancor.

CA DFG, CA State Parks and the BEAR League all have a presence in the exhibit's present-day section. Budget cuts delayed some DFG elements, but we anticipate their addition in coming weeks. Recently we heard from homeowners, primarily summer residents, who are concerned that property damage wrought by bears is not sufficiently covered in the exhibit. We will add this perspective as well. Without it, visitors might not appreciate the severity of what is at stake for both bears and people.

The final element in the Ursus exhibit is, "You Are a Bear Trainer." A collaboration among the museum, DFG, the BEAR League and CA State Parks, this piece was approved by all and offers tips for how to behave in the Tahoe Basin.

The exhibit is an information point, providing natural and cultural historical information as well as touching on present-day activities. Although we don't hesitate to note the presence of black bears is, as DFG says, an indication of a healthy functioning ecosystem and, as ancient residents, their presence here deserves respect, we do not have a position in the debate about black bears. We offer different points of view that are expressed publicly in this debate: each visitor ultimately must make up their own mind.

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.

Final installment next week: What we've gleaned from visitor input

- 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.

Marguerite Sprague
Special to the Sun


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Tahoe Daily Tribune Updated Oct 24, 2012 07:03PM Published Oct 24, 2012 06:47PM Copyright 2012 Tahoe Daily Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.