Unwanted visitors: keeping bears away | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Unwanted visitors: keeping bears away

Isaac Brambila
ibrambila@tahoedailytribune.com

It happens often. You return home to find that your front door has been ripped apart and that your belongings have been littered all over the place. The culprit, however, won't be prosecuted. Often, the person found responsible for the break-in is the homeowner or renter.

As winter approaches, bears are foraging for food and consuming between 25,000 and 35,000 calories per day as they prepare for hibernation.

If they smell appetizing food in someone's home, a shut and locked front door or window may not be enough to keep them out. However, if a window or door is open, it is almost an invitation for a bear to come in.

Though bears are usually not interested in taking valuables, their search for food can sometimes prove more costly than an actual burglary.

"I've seen where, literally, the person would have to have an insurance claim for a kitchen remodel. Same with cars, I've seen the cars just destroyed, doors ripped off and all the interior of the car gone," SLTPD Officer Jake Herminghaus said.

As part of their field training, all officers at the SLTPD learn to differentiate between burglaries and bear break-ins, Herminghaus said.

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For the trained eye, the signs are usually very clear.

"Bears make it very obvious when they're breaking in," he said.

"As soon as you go into the house the kitchen will be almost demolished. The refrigerator is knocked over, there's cabinets missing and then, generally, there'll be garbage all over the house from where the bear was eating."

Typically, if valuable items are not reported missing and only food was taken, chances are it was a bear that broke into the home, he said.

Open doors and windows allow food smells to leave homes and reach a bear's nose, catching its attention. They can also provide an easy point of entry.

With a sense of smell about 300 times as powerful as that of a human's, bears can sometimes smell food through closed doors and windows and are powerful enough to break through them.

"I've been to one recently where people left a piece of fish in their kitchen, on the table where they were going to cook it, and they were gone for like a half-an-hour and they came back and the bears had gotten in," Herminghaus said.

Often, if a bear discovers a place where it can find food without opposition, it will return to the same place.

Though bear break-ins occur often, the problem is highly preventable, Executive Director and Founder of the BEAR League Ann Bryant said.

In recent years, authorities in California have shifted its policy to place more responsibility to humans and less on bears.

The BEAR league, which often helps the SLTPD address bear calls, aims to provide people with education to facilitate the coexistence between humans and bears.

"We need to move into bear habitats with a sense of responsibility," Bryant said.

"We need to think about the fact that bears are here and looking to profit on what we do wrong."

In California, when a bear is found to have broken into a home by damaging property, such as breaking down a door and smashing a window, the invasion is considered a hard break-in. If the owner proves that he has taken satisfactory measures to bear-proof his or her home, the bear could be euthanized. In 2003, two bears were euthanized, and this year one bear has been put down because of break-ins, Bryant said. Those figures, however, have reduced since roughly 10 years ago, when, on average, 20-to-25 bears were being euthanized every year.

Still, if a bear is found to have entered a home through an open entryway or if it can be proven that the owner did not take necessary steps to keep bears away, the owner is found responsible.

That change, Bryant said, can be attributed to the understanding by the authorities that humans carry much of the responsibility when a break-in occurs.

In order to prevent bears from breaking into homes, the BEAR league provides extensive suggestions to bear-proof homes.

They include not leaving garbage out near the home for long periods of time and acquiring bear proof trash cans. They also include not leaving pet food out or bird feeders accessible to bears. The electrification of doors and windows is one of the most effective ways to keep bears away, according to the BEAR League.

In the past, people sprayed Pine Sol around their home to dissuade bears from approaching their homes, but change in the chemical composition of the product about a year ago discontinued the effectiveness of that practice, Bryant said.

Furthermore, particularly in the coming months, homeowners should take steps to secure crawl spaces, which can serve as a perfect place for hibernating bears to build their den.

Bryant said she understands that people want to see bears, but those sightings need to happen without direct interaction between the human and the bear. Feeding bears can be penalized with a $1,000 fine or one year in jail, and leaving garbage out for an extended amount of time can represent a citation from the city or the county.

"We want people to have bear experiences," she said. "But we don't want your experience to be that the bear is in your garbage. We don't want your experience to be that the bear is pounding on your window."

For more information about adapting to bear habitat, visit http://www.savebears.org.

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