Bears awake and hungry |

Bears awake and hungry

by Andy Bourelle

Imagine waking up from a two- or three-month nap, hungry as heck, and all your snacks are covered in a blanket of snow.

That’s what is happening to Lake Tahoe’s black bears right now. In a habitat sans humans, those bears make do, finding enough food to survive. That’s the way Mother Nature wants it.

At Tahoe, however, those bears often look for a quick-and-easy meal – courtesy of Tahoe residents and visitors.

And when they get food from garbage cans, pet food containers, bird feeders or from misguided people leaving meals out for them, bears not only increasingly lose their fear of people, they start to depend on humans.

“What happens is when bears become dependent upon people for food, they will continue that behavior,” said Patrick Foy, spokesman for California Fish and Game. “It gets worse and worse. As they grow and mature, they become smarter and recognize opportunities for food.”

The worst-case end result of what can happen when a bear depends on people can be illustrated by a North Shore event last August. A large bear broke through a home’s front picture window, headed straight to the kitchen and tore the room apart looking for and eating food. The house was occupied, and the family escaped through a bedroom window.

When authorities came and tried to haze the bear – or scare it away – the bear growled at them and wouldn’t leave the property, showing it had lost all fear of humans. Authorities killed it with shotguns.

“There is a phrase biologists use: ‘A fed bear is a dead bear,'” Foy said, adding that he thinks that is especially the case with cubs.

The small animals – despite often looking thin, helpless and adorable – should not be fed.

“Like people, the earlier you teach someone something, the earlier they are going to master it,” Foy said. “The earlier you teach a bear to depend on people for food, the stronger that lesson is learned by the bear.”

Carl Lackey, wildlife biologist for the Nevada Department of Wildlife, said that about three-fourths of the 16 area bears collared by the University of Nevada, Reno are already awake. And they are getting into trash cans. In Incline Village a homeowner left her garage door open, and a bear walked in, opened a refrigerator and helped himself to its contents.

“We just don’t have any success at all in getting people to keep their garbage away from bears,” Lackey said. “People have to keep garbage locked up. There’s no other way about it. And so far, people aren’t doing it.”

It’s common for bears to wake up from their quasi-hibernation in March, Lackey said. However, they likely wouldn’t be out and about if frequent snow storms were still happening. Because of the late winter at Tahoe this season, many of the bears didn’t go to sleep until the middle of January.

Foy of Fish and Game said that Tahoe residents should get involved in bear problems. Many people are part-time homeowners and don’t know about how important it is to not feed them and to protect garbage. Their neighbors should help to educate them, either leading by example or talking to them.

“When a person is inconvenienced by a bear, the first thing they do is call us and say, ‘Hey, there’s a bear. Come and get it,'” Foy said. “We say, ‘We’re not going to do that.’ Immediately, sounding surprised, they say, ‘What do you want me to do?’ We’ve made progress already.

“It has to be a community effort,” he added. “We can help them assess their problem as much as we can, but the people who are most able to make a difference are the people in the community.

“It’s beyond us, beyond the Bear Preservation League folks. It’s something that has to be done at a community level if there’s going to be a change.”


Tips for keeping bears out of your neighborhood – and helping to save their lives.

n Deodorize garbage cans with bleach, ammonia, Pinesol or Cayenne pepper solutions.

n Double bag garbage to eliminate odors.

n Freeze smelly foods, and don’t put them in the can on garbage day. Or get rid of them in a garbage disposal.

n Deodorize soil or other porous surfaces where garbage has been stored and other areas where the bear has spread garbage around before.

n Put out garbage the morning of pickup, not the night before.

n Don’t leave pet food outside.

n Secure garage doors so that bears cannot enter garages, storage sheds or residences.

n Don’t leave food in vehicles.

n Never feed wildlife.

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