The bear facts |

The bear facts

Claire Fortier

It had to happen sooner or later – the squabbling that threatens the bear facilities at Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care.

The cost of Tahoe Basin land has skyrocketed as more people seek their slice of paradise, which is shrinking the lines between rural Tahoe and lake life. People want their mountain homes but want them free from the realities of wilderness living.

Almost 20 years ago, Cheryl and Tom Millham took the opposite approach. They embraced their mountain environment, taking upon themselves a job no one else wanted. They took in the sick and injured wildlife – animals often victims of man and his need to change the environment.

On their then remote property off Elk Point Road, they established a wonderful facility. Through hard work and almost slavish devotion to wildlife, they garnered tremendous support in the community. Their successes have been numerous. With each release of a healed eagle or bear cub, many in the community cheer, feeling as if the foot of man on this fragile area was just a little less heavy.

While South Shore residents may be thrilled with Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care, most don’t have to live with a zoo just a fence away.

That’s why the owner of a house behind the Wildlife Care is considerably less altruistic about the facility. As he sees it, the Millhams constructed their bear cage just 5 feet from his back fence. That was just a little too close to wildlife for him.

Certainly his point is a good one. Living next to a cage of bears could be a little disconcerting, if he lived in the Bay area. But this is Lake Tahoe. We all live with neighboring bears, usually not caged and often uncomfortably close. Bears, healthy or sick, are a part of our environment and a part of our lives.

Nonetheless, the neighbor may have had a point had he not known what he was getting into. But the man who built his house behind the Wildlife Care facility last summer has lived on the South Shore for more than a couple of years. He knew about the facility and its mission to rescue wild animals. He said he had researched permits on the property and had no idea the Millhams planned to build a bear cage so close to his house.

However, the Millhams claim the foundation for the cage had been poured five years ago. And the Millhams have been talking publicly about building a bear cage for years. Perhaps the Millhams didn’t follow the letter of the law by not filing for an El Dorado County building permit. But they built this cage following the same guidelines as they have every other wildlife enclosure.

Now the California Department of Fish and Game is threatening Wildlife Care’s permit to rehabilitate the bear cubs. As sad as that may be for the facility, the state agency has no choice on this one. It can not supersede county building codes.

This may put the Millhams in a bind. After they apply for a county permit, which they haven’t done as yet, they must rely on the good judgment of the county. That’s a tough spot as the decision makers down the hill don’t have the same understanding of the Millhams’ mission as those who live in Tahoe.

Nonetheless, the state permit can’t come without the county’s.

The Millhams have faced considerable obstacles in their endeavors to rehabilitate bears. The latest seems the most difficult because it may not be a question of what is right but who is right that will prevail.

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