LAKE TAHOE — Welcome to Lake Tahoe, Jewel of the Sierra. Keep in mind vacationing in black bear country brings with it some responsibilities.
Rule one is simple: Keep your food, your pet’s food and everyone’s garbage out of bears’ paws. Do not feed bears, accidentally or intentionally.
Rule two is just as simple: There’s no excuse for breaking rule one. It is illegal and it will make trouble not only for you, but for bears who will pay the price for your irresponsibility, sometimes with their lives.
“Problems can be completely avoided if you keep it in the back of your mind that every moment you are in Tahoe, there is a bear hiding behind a tree somewhere,” said Ann Bryant, director of the Bear Education Aversion Response (BEAR) League. “You can’t see him, but he can see you. And he’s waiting for you to do something for him to score a meal.”
Bears have great noses for sniffing out food and trash.
Don’t leave food outside. That includes dirty dishes. Don’t leave food in a car or even a house if a bear can smell it and find a way in.
Garbage belongs in bear-proof trash bins. Never leave it out overnight in regular trash cans or lying around outside to be cleaned up tomorrow.
Like the famous Yogi bear, Lake Tahoe’s bruins also are “Smarter than the av-er-age bear.” To get at a “pic-a-nic basket” or any other smelly, tasty treat, however small, they will climb through windows and break into homes. They will break into cars. They can make a big mess doing it.
“One person told me it was $5,000 or $6,000 to fix the inside of their car,” Nevada Department of Wildlife spokesman Chris Healy said about one bear break-in. “Bears can not only smell where food is, they have strength and perseverance to remove barriers between them and food. People need to be very vigilant.”
‘BEARS PAY THE PRICE’
Lake Tahoe has its share of bear and human conflicts. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
“One of the biggest challenges is the fact that during summer and fall, the population turns over every week, and a new bunch of people needs to be educated that feeding the bears is not an option, whether inadvertent or deliberate,” Healy said.
Local wildlife agencies have heard reports of vacationers having cocktail parties and throwing food off the deck to bears below.
“That is an abomination,” Healy said. “They’re not pigeons. They’re not ducks. They’re bears. And as beautiful as they are and as much as we all love them, they are much more lovable when they are wild bears.”
Bears that get a taste of human food or garbage can come to depend on it and become dangerous. Sometimes they pay for the dependence with their lives.
A group of people in Incline Village was feeding bears last summer. Multiple bears started showing up for handouts. When that food disappeared, one of the bears kept coming around and started breaking into homes and cars to find more.
“That bear should be up in the wild along a stream looking for berries and nuts. Instead, he’s checking cars for food,” Healy said.
The bear had to be trapped and killed by state wildlife officials.
“Humans caused it and then bears pay the price,” Healy said. “If people are going to come in and spend time in an environment like Lake Tahoe, they need to be aware of all the problems and drama we’ve gone through trying to keep our bears wild.”
‘MAKE IT WORK FOR ALL OF US’
This is black bear country. Black bears are a normal sight — even if they’re not actually black in color, but brown or cinnamon instead.
No, the bears do not have rabies if they’re out during the day. No, that’s not a grizzly bear. No, the bears are not just waiting to ambush and attack you or your children or pets. Those are just three of many bear misconceptions that people bring to Lake Tahoe, Bryant said.
If you see a bear while hiking in the woods, don’t approach it, but don’t be overly afraid. Enjoy the experience. Bears are one of Tahoe’s natural wonders. Keep a safe, respectable distance, give the bear space, remember you are in its home — and then be on your way.
If you see a bear in your yard, consider letting it know it is in your yard by banging pots or yelling to scare it off. Don’t approach it and keep a safe and respectable distance. Also ask yourself why you are seeing a bear in your yard.
“Are you doing something to attract that bear? If you barbecued the night before and didn’t clean the grill and the bear is on your deck, that is a whole different thing and you need to remove that attractant,” Healy said.
While black bears have injured and killed people, and they can be very dangerous, Bryant points out that no human has ever been fatally attacked by a black bear in California or Nevada.
Instead, many more bears die because of humans than the other way around. They continue to die each year, whether that’s because they’re hit by cars, illegally shot or destroyed because they become dependent on humans for food.
“It’s a dangerous place to be a bear,” Bryant said about Lake Tahoe. “They’ve always been here and they’re not going away. We’re here and we’re not going away. So we have to make it work for all of us.”