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.
The exhibit features interactive components as well as historical information and video. The "Please Touch" table offers replica skulls, bear claws, rubber paw prints and real bear fur for visitors to handle. In the bears and people section, we have tiles, paper and crayon, and stencils of real black bear paw prints, so children of all ages can create their own artwork. And in the library, we are collecting people's bear stories that we will be posting in the exhibit and on our Facebook page for the public to appreciate. As you might imagine, we hear some very interesting stories.
We have noticed some consistent assertions from folks. Virtually all longtime residents (including second-home owners) say that 20 years ago, bears were not a problem locally. Whether they live on the north shore or the west shore, bears were not a problem. These same people tell us that at that time, deer were plentiful in this area and today they rarely, if ever, see them. It appears that not long after the deer disappeared, the bears started becoming a problem.
Some people have suggested the bear boxes are a problem, but anecdotally, it seems that the bear boxes emerged as a solution to a problem that preceded them. And that problem emerged after the deer disappeared. Researchers agree: Black bears predate deer fawns. They like to eat them. Could it be that when this food source disappeared, the bears found human food and garbage as a replacement?
If there was no historical need to be careful with your food and garbage, the problem was ripe when the hungry bears began foraging in the area like a teenager in a refrigerator: Whaddaya got to eat? They found unprotected homes and garbage cans, and a new, generally reliable food source was at hand. So were problems for the people.
Moreover: Why did the deer disappear? Disease? Did some of their favorite food sources disappear? So far, no one has had any knowledge of what caused this. Deer are still in the area, but long term residents say they are far fewer in number than they used to be.
This is all very interesting, but not very useful when a bear is trying to raid your refrigerator at 2 a.m.
We encourage all to come take in the Ursus Among Us exhibit at Gatekeeper's Museum to gain an understanding of how these animals exist apart from humans. Then we may be better equipped to tackle the issues of co-existence, both with the bears and with each other. No one we have met so far really wants to kill these animals. No one wants to have them in their living room, either. We're a clever species. We can figure this out.
The Gatekeeper's Museum is located 130 West Lake Blvd. by the Wye in Tahoe City. The museum is currently on winter hours: Open Fridays and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and any day by appointment. 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.