Tahoe wildlife officials address bear concerns around the lake
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — Spring is in the air across the Tahoe Basin, with warmer temperatures, blooming flowers, greener meadows — and trash occasionally strewn around a neighborhood due to mismanaged garbage.
As bears begin to emerge from hibernation, wildlife officials are once again urging residents and visitors to be “bear aware” leading up to Memorial Day weekend and the summer season.
“All of a sudden in March, it starts to escalate,” Clean Tahoe executive director Catherine Cecchi said of garbage incidents. Her nonprofit agency assists with trash pickup across the South Shore and is often called to respond when wildlife gets into trash.
“It’s certainly started to pick up,” she said, describing 49 animals-in-trash incidents they responded to on the South Shore during the month of March. Cecchi said she believes three-quarters of the incidents are likely bear-related.
“The big problem this time of year is people let their guard down,” Nevada Department of Wildlife spokesman Chris Healy said.
While there have been some incidents, Healy said the rate of activity has been down — at least on the Nevada side of the lake.
“It hasn’t been as busy as it has been some years,” he explained, citing drought recovery and increased natural food sources for the lack of activity.
“We’re hoping that it’s going to be a year where the wildland bears stay in the wild,” he said. “But there’s still a lot of factors that have yet to play out.”
In 2014, for example, a substantial apple crop in Carson Valley and around Reno was credited for increased incidents, Healy said. He added that a late freeze could also reduce the amount of food in the wild, like wild nuts, also potentially bringing the bear population closer to populated areas.
Along the South Shore, wildlife response volunteer and Tahoe Bear League board member Toogee Sielsch said he’s responded to a few incidents already, but they’ve tapered off with spring. He also credited increased vegetation following the return of average snowfall after four drought years.
“Right out of the gate, in two weeks I’ve done four different bear aversions,” he said. “They’re making themselves shown, but they’ve backed off a little.”
While largely anecdotal, Sielsch observed that bears appear to be coming out of hibernation looking healthier than in past years.
He said the four bear cubs recently handled by NDOW were an example potentially representative of a healthy bear population.
When food is less plentiful bears typically have fewer cubs, according to Sielsch.
“Four cubs shows that the environmental conditions are good for bears,” he said. “Here in the Sierra, that’s a lot.”
Healy suggested, however, that it may be too early to tell the full impact of drought recovery on the wildlife population.
The cubs were rescued by NDOW earlier this month near Stateline and taken to Animal Ark, a Reno-area wildlife refuge. They were rescued following the death of their mother — believed to be of natural causes. The cubs are expected to be cared for through the summer with minimal human contact and released into the wild in an artificial den next winter, prior to hibernation.
INCLINE BEAR CAUGHT AND RELEASED
NDOW officials reportedly trapped a large adult bear in Incline Village in late March after it got into trash at a condo complex.
The bear — estimated at around 400 pounds and previously untagged — was subsequently released in the Sweetwater Mountains, southwest of Tahoe.
Responding to criticism that the bear was released in a hunt zone, Healy said the decision was made because of snow conditions.
“It’s just not true. We’re not playing catch-and-release hunting,” he said. “When conditions are right we do an onsite release. In the third week of March that wasn’t available to us because of snow. Once we get into the summer almost all of our releases are onsite.”
Onsite can include substantial distance due to bears’ tendencies to roam.
Nevada bear hunt runs from mid-September through November, and the state limits bear hunting to 20 bears annually. Most of western Nevada is designated as a bear hunt zone, with the exception of the area around the Tahoe Basin.
Healy said trash management continues to be a concern in Incline Village.
“It’s frustrating for us. We take the beating,” he said. “We’re not the ones that manage the garbage.”
According to Sielsch, the complex where the bear was trapped regularly has trash within reach of wildlife.
“The only place they can put the trash is on patios,” he said after speaking with the complex owner regarding the concern.
On the South Shore, however, trash management appears to be improving — at least anecdotally.
“We’re seeing a lot more [bear boxes],” Cecchi said, speaking on behalf of Clean Tahoe work crews and volunteers.
She credited El Dorado County and the City of South Lake Tahoe for stepping up ordinance enforcement. The county requires two-time offenders to bear-proof their trash and the city issues citations with progressive fine values.
“I think people are starting to catch on,” Sielsch said. “We need to approach this as a community.”
U.S. Forest Service information on avoiding bear and other wildlife conflicts is available at http://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/ltbmu.
Bear incidents can be reported to the Tahoe Bear League at 530-525-7297.