Not all bears hibernate at Lake Tahoe
The past week brought a welcomed reminder that it is, in fact, still winter. And for some people in and around Incline Village, it also brought a reminder that not every bear hibernates.
Social media posts containing pictures and videos of bears slugging through the snow sprouted up on local pages. The posts are not due to some newly discovered anomaly.
Despite the misconception by some that all black bears hibernate in the winter, bruins in and around Lake Tahoe can occasionally be seen during the cold season.
“We’ve had a certain number of bears active during the winter in the last few years,” said California Fish and Wildlife Biologist Jason Holley. “If I had to guess I’d say 10 to 15 percent are active during the winter.”
For black bears throughout California, it’s not at all uncommon to have some level of activity in the winter.
“We have bears near (Los Angeles) that never really hibernate, they’re just eating,” Holley said. “That’s because hibernation is mainly adaptive to the lack of natural food availability.”
Black bears are omnivores and are sometimes called “opportunistic eaters” for their scavenger-like tendencies. Their natural diet consists of fish, berries, nuts, insects and sometimes a small animal.
Since winters in the Sierra are colder and wetter than those in Southern California, there’s less natural food available, so bears, like many other animals, tend to sleep the winter months away.
There are other variables apart from food influencing whether or not a bear goes into hibernation, like the temperature and amount of snow, Holley said. It also varies by elevation.
“On the mountainside and down on the floor (of the Lake Tahoe Basin) are two very different behaviors,” he said.
It’s typical for bears to wake up, look around and then go back to bed during hibernation, but issues can arise when they stay awake and supplement the lack of natural food sources during the winter with human garbage.
“In Tahoe there’s a lack of natural food available during the winter, but there are so many people around,” Holley said.
Garbage and other food sources from humans can provide a reliable enough food source for some Tahoe-area bears to stay up all winter.
“If you’re successful in providing significant food to an animal, they’ll continue trying to seek that out,” Holley said. “We call that being food habituated … they start to lose some of their fears of people and that can end really bad for the bear.”
It’s against the law to feed wildlife, including bears, deer, squirrels or any other wild animal, in both California and Nevada. Fines can be as high as $500 in Nevada, and up to $1,000 with the possibility of jail time in California.
Come across a bear? No reason to panic
Whether a bear gets food from a human who’s feeding it intentionally or accidentally — like not putting trash into wildlife-safe containers or leaving food somewhere animals can get to it — it’s harmful because it teaches them that they don’t have to get food from natural sources. In turn, they become less afraid of humans — and more likely to cause problems.
“All those factors make the bear less wild and increase the likelihood that agencies like ours and (the Nevada Department of Wildlife) will have to take (i.e. kill or euthanize) a bear whose behavior has been changed through no fault of its own,” Holley said.
Typically, bears are hazed with non-lethal means like loud noises and rubber bullets to scare them away from people. But when bears start to rely on human food sources, hazing loses its effectiveness.
Although attacks by black bears on humans are rare, Holley said bruins can become assertive in getting food from humans and have been known to break into houses. But seeing a bear is no reason to panic.
“A bear sighting is not a potential public safety threat,” he said. “Just because you see a bear doesn’t mean it’s a threatening situation; most likely it’ll wander off.”
If a sighting becomes an encounter, meaning the bear comes within 50 feet of a person, Holley said it’s important not to panic and to instead back slowly away while making sure the bear always has an escape route.
“Sometimes these food-conditioned bears get into a house; make sure you don’t block the exit route … Go out the back door and try to leave a different way and don’t block the bear’s exit,” Holley said.
Bears don’t just enter homes looking for food, either.
Some bears, in the process of looking for a location to hunker down for winter, will make a den underneath people’s home, according to Ann Bryant, executive director of the nonprofit BEAR League.
When bears find their shelter under homes, it can lead to damage or even the bear finding a trap door and making its way inside the home.
“There’s never a week that goes by that we don’t get calls,” she added.
This article is adapted from the winter 2017-18 edition of Tahoe Magazine.