Bear break-ins cause frustration
Timberland residents have done it all – electronic barking dogs, bear-proof garbage cans, bowls filled with ammonia, even a surveillance telephone that automatically dials a notification call when a bear breaks in.
Despite the precautions, when it comes to this year’s escalating bruin encounters, some West Shore homeowners are waving a white flag.
Second-homeowner Sumner Thomas illustrated the point recently when he boarded up all the doors and windows to his Rustic Lane residence and spray-painted in bold, red letters: “We give up,” and “The bears won.”
“We have never in our entire life up there had a bear even think about breaking into the house until this year,” Thomas said.
Bears have wreaked more than $1,000 damage to his property in four break-ins since December, Thomas said, three occurring in August. And his home was one target among many.
“There’s just bear story after bear story,” said Ron Harder, a Timberland neighbor of Thomas. “Some agency has to take charge of this problem.”
Harder and Thomas join a chorus of frustrated residents throughout the Tahoe-Truckee area when it comes to bear intrusions.
“We’ve got an exceptionally bad situation right now with the bears being in a state of, pretty much, frenzy,” said Executive Director Ann Bryant of the BEAR League. “They’re extraordinarily intent on getting into homes because they all now know that there is food in homes.”
The BEAR League reported that 65 bears have died on Tahoe roads this summer. Bryant said she expects road hits to be 400 percent higher than past years by the end of the fall.
Human encounters with bears are up higher than they’ve been in the past 20 years, the California Department of Fish and Game reported, naming this year’s drought as a primary factor.
“At this time of year, the berries have essentially dried out and the acorns have yet to fall, so you have bears looking for food sources,” said Kyle Orr, a spokesman for the state Department of Fish and Game. “What we’re stressing is that people need to be extra careful about leaving out food and other items that attract a bear.”
The warning comes just before the weather turns, a signal to bears to prepare for hibernation and pack on extra pounds. An average bear will need to consume 20,000 calories a day to prepare for their winter’s rest, Bryant said.
“That’s a lot of food and it’s a lot easier to find it in somebody’s kitchen than in a berry patch,” Bryant said. “Food is all they think about, and they take a short little nap, and while they’re napping, they’re dreaming of eating.”
Wildlife biologist Jason Holley of the Department of Fish and Game said bear break-ins have worsened progressively over the past five years. He said the drought is driving wild bears to neighborhoods to forage for food.
Holley also said that habituated bears are reproducing in urban areas and training cubs to scavenge garbage cans rather than rely on berry bushes. Bear reproduction always increases when food is readily available, Holley said. And food is abundant in homes with stocked refrigerators, pantries and garbage Dumpsters.
“When there’s a lot of natural food – you get more cubs in those years, too,” Holley said. “The problem with the urban bears, there’s always high food availability.”
A black bear has never killed a human in Nevada or California, officials said. But bears have caused injuries.
Collier Cook, Placer County Supervisor Bruce Kranz’s Tahoe field representative, is looking to coordinate dialogue between local governing agencies, including Placer County, the Department of Fish and Game and state Sen. Dave Cox, to find a solution to the mounting bear issue.
Agencies must collaborate to educate the public and offer leadership, guidance and solutions, both for the short-term and long-term, Cook said.
The BEAR League would like to plant and scatter food in the backcountry to remind bears how to forage naturally, Bryant said, but state wildlife officials have responded coolly to the proposal.
Holley, the state biologist, suggested aversion tactics could instill fear in bears and discourage them from roaming in human neighborhoods. Nevada wildlife officials have used aversion successfully in that state, and Holley said it would likely be applied to the California side of Tahoe this spring, depending on funding.
“It’s a tough one, especially this year. But there’s really no re-training bears to go back into the wild,” Holley said. “(Aversion) doesn’t prevent bears from trying to get at our food. There is some evidence that it may instill fear.”
So, what’s a homeowner to do?
Protecting one’s home against bear invasion is easier said than done, officials agree. But residents can take precautions to defend their property, and also teach bears that breaking and entering means something other than a piece of cake.
Holley said if a bear enters an occupied home, the resident should defend himself to the point he’s comfortable doing so.
“If there is an immediate threat to your life, you can defend yourself by any means necessary,” Holley said.
To prevent an ursine intrusion, officials say homeowners are allowed to take any action, outside of injuring the bear, on their property.
Bryant suggested barking-dog devices, and leaving radios and lights on to give an illusion that the home is occupied, even if it’s not.
Second-homeowners who leave for extended periods of time need to empty their cupboards, Bryant emphasized. Bowls of Pine-Sol left in front of doors and windows will cover up food smells. She also recommended reinforcing windows and installing dead bolts on doors.
Boarding up one’s home isn’t an extreme precaution, Bryant said. On the contrary, most cabins in Tahoe need to be given extra strength.
“The main thing is just to always keep in your mind that there’s a bear out there trying to score, and if you’re not taking every possible step, even to the point of feeling, ‘Hey, I’m really going overboard here’ – you have to,” Bryant advised.
Bear unwelcome mats
Only as a last resort does the BEAR League recommend nail-studded boards to ward off the omnivorous mammals.
“We only mention [nail boards] when we’ve got a dire situation when nothing else is working,” said Executive Director Ann Bryant of the BEAR League.
A nail board, also known as a “bear unwelcome mat,” is a strip of plywood with nails set apart every two inches. The sharp points should stick out a half-inch and Bryant recommended galvanized roofing nails. The board is then placed under windows or doors.
The board is a defense against bear intrusion, but some question the ethics involved.
“Nail boards could be interpreted as inhumane to animals,” said Truckee resident Jim Atchison.
But some officials say the boards don’t hurt bears. The prick, instead, will discourage their attempted break-in. Instinct tells the bears to not stand and put weight on the boards, said wildlife biologist Jason Holley of the California Department of Fish and Game.
But the beds of nails also pose a threat to unwary humans, who could unwittingly step on the nails. Bryant stressed the importance of notifying human visitors of the presence and location of nail beds, either through caution tape or fluorescent spray paint.
“This is more dangerous to humans than it is to bears,” Atchison said.