Potential solution to bear problems | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Potential solution to bear problems

As a deputy sheriff in a small Lake Tahoe West Shore community, Patrick Harris is often called on to intervene in unusual situations.

Take this one for example: A Meeks Bay woman enters her kitchen, and comes face to face with an adult brown bear raiding her refrigerator.

“The woman was carrying a tray of food, and she screamed and threw the tray at the bear and ran for her life,” said Harris. “I got the call, and had to chase he bear away with a stick and some pots and pans. And that same bear has been seen breaking into other homes.”

Harris is one of two full-time El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department deputies who patrol the Meeks Bay-Tahoma region. They are virtually the only law enforcement in a region that is somewhat cut off from the larger communities of the Tahoe Basin, and thus feel a responsibility to try and resolve a variety of unusual problems.

Home break-ins by hungry bears is one of those.

“It’s become more and more of an issue in the four summers I have been here,” Harris said. “It’s the majority opinion in our community that there is a great deal of concern for our children’s safety. But our residents have also made it clear that they don’t want the bears killed. We had to find a solution.”

Marauding bears are becoming increasingly common in the Tahoe Basin, and the West Shore is a hot spot of ursine activity. Several bears have been destroyed by the Department of Fish and Game, which by law must kill those bears who repeatedly destroy property or menace residents.

This has distressed many bear-loving residents, and in fact the Bear Preservation League was formed this past spring to provide solutions. But still the bears keep coming.

“I was in my patrol car watching some bears go at a dumpster,” Harris said. “The dumpster had one of those small trap doors in the center, which was the only thing the mother bear could open.

“Then I watched as she actually lowered her cub into the small opening, and the cub began throwing out the food in the dumpster for the other bears to eat. It was then that I realized that we’re dealing with an extremely smart, resourceful animal here.”

Harris knew he would likewise have to use his head. He began doing research, and discovered that the small community of Mammoth Lakes had a similar bear situation – until one man devised a plan to solve the problem.

That man is Steven Searles, a former glass store owner at Mammoth who sold his business to devise and install a sort of “scared straight” bear program.

“We’ve had fantastic success,” said Searles, who is now the Wildlife Research and Management Consultant for the Mammoth Lakes Police Department.

“We have about 30 to 40 bears who co-exist with us here around Mammoth,” he said. “There’s a construction boom here, and people are coming into contact with bears more and more. Essentially, bears know they are not allowed in my town. We use a variety of techniques to let them know that town is off-limits.

“Do they work? Well, Yosemite had hundreds of bears in their park last year. At Mammoth over the past four years, we’ve had a total of one.”

Searles’ secret is really no secret at all. He employs a technique he calls verbal conditioning, in which a “bad bear” is scared off with light physical punishment in conjunction with verbal commands.

“We use things such as pepper spray, rubber bullets, rubber buckshot and flash-bang devises,” Searles said. “But the key is that you never use the same device twice in a row. Also, you use body language and a loud verbal command at the same time, so the bear learns to associate the pain with the command. It’s really no pain at all; a bear can hardly even feel a rubber bullet.

“In my town, if you see a bear, all you have to do is wave your arms and yell and that bear will haul it’s furry butt back into the woods. It’s been conditioned that way.”

Meeks Bay and Tahoma are similar to Mammoth in many respects, and that includes the behavior of the bear population. After cruising Searles’ Internet site (www.bearaffairs.com), Harris learned that Searles was offering workshops in Bear management. So he and fellow deputy Dan Bartley took a two-day trip to Mammoth to participate in Searles’ workshop.

“We got a lot out of it,” Harris said. “The big thing he teaches you is a respect for wildlife. If people take the time to understand bears and their habits, it’s much easier to coexist and find solutions.”

The El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department recently approved the Searles method for use on Tahoe’s West Shore. The department will soon receive a variety of “bear ordinance” – in other words, rubber bullets, pepper spray and other non-lethal weapons to scare the bruins back into the woods. But more importantly, deputies and residents will learn “scared straight” techniques to keep the bears in the woods where they belong.

There will be a community meeting in Tahoma next month to discuss the new techniques.

“In my mind, this is a good example of how government should work,” Harris said. “People in the community bring a problem to the line deputies, and we devise a plan and present it to our superiors. In this case it was approved, and the experiment will soon be underway.”

It’s an experiment that should work, if Mammoth Lakes is any indication. Searles’ methods have been so successful that Walt Disney Productions is planning a two-hour documentary on his work, and he has conducted workshops in such far-flung locales as British Columbia and Montana.

“Last year in Canada, 4,500 bears were killed, just for eating garbage,” Searles said. “And it’s only because we don’t understand these animals. My method works because of the bears themselves; it’s a tribute to their intelligence. It’s an important challenge, and one worth taking on.”

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