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Tahoe can’t put a lid on bear problem

Rick Chandler

Wednesday is garbage pickup day in the Tahoe Paradise area, and that means one thing to many of the larger residents.

Breakfast is served.

“I see bears around here all the time,” said Greg Thorn, a home owner who lives in the area near Meyers and the Lake Tahoe Airport. “A big one was here last Wednesday, just walking down the street. They know when garbage day is, and they come down out of the woods for a snack. It’s really common.”



Tahoe is bear country – black bears, to be precise. And to paraphrase the popular children’s song, “garbage day is the day the teddy bears have their picnic.”

But here’s the problem: Bears who grow accustomed to feeding on garbage and other easy pickings run the risk of being trapped and killed by wildlife authorities, who – in California at least – are mandated by law to destroy those bears classified as a threat to human safety or property.



The simple solution to the bear problem would seem to be capturing and relocating an offending bruin to a far-off location away from man, but that almost never works. Although the state of Nevada still attempts to relocate bears classified as “nuisance” animals, California will not.

“It’s just a waste of effort to relocate a bear,” said South Lake Tahoe Animal Control officer Ken Gentile. “If they get used to feeding on garbage or dog food, that’s it, they’ll find a way to come back. It’s up to people to keep the food source away from them. It’s a question of education more than anything else.”

“Bear-proof” trash cans are available for sale, but the city of South Lake Tahoe currently has no laws requiring residents to obtain them.

“I love bears, but I’m also against adding any more laws on the books,” said South Lake Tahoe Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Duane Wallace. “The problem we face is that we have a very large vacation population. There’s a great deal of food available for bears, because a lot of people leave town on a Sunday, and garbage pickup isn’t until Tuesday or Wednesday.”

A firestorm of protest arose in the Homewood area recently when a mother bear and her cub were destroyed by California Department of Fish and Game officials. A summer tourist reported that two bears had damaged his summer rental property, and a state game warden issued a permit to have the bears trapped and euthanized.

That doesn’t sit well with many Tahoe residents, who consider the furry bruins more than just a novelty item.

“I love the bears; they have just as much right to live here as anyone,” said Zandy Hartley, who has lived in the Zephyr Cove area for 16 years and has seen bears on occasion around her property. “They pose no real threat to us.

“People from out of town are ignorant of the situation. I would just like to tell them to leave our bears alone.”

But that’s easier said than done. Just as many people in the Golden State have fallen in love with the Lake Tahoe area, so have bears. But skiing and gambling aren’t high on their to-do lists.

“A bear pretty much thinks about one thing all the time, especially at this time of the year,” said Vicki Valentine, education coordinator at the Folsom City Zoo. “They’re eating machines. It’s a rush toward winter, with the bears trying to put on fat as fast as they can, eating as much food as they can.

“A wild animal is an opportunist, and a bear is a particularly strong and resourceful one. So when people leave their garbage out, or actually make an effort to feed bears, they’re creating a big problem.”

California Fish and Game gets about three bear calls a week from the South Lake Tahoe area, but most do not involve property damage, and bears are rarely a physical threat. None have been killed in the area this year. Statewide, the bear population is thriving, with about 20,000 animals in the wild. According to the Department of Fish and Game, 16 bears were killed in California in 1997.

“As I see it, we don’t have a bear problem, we have a people problem,” Fish and Game warden Bob Teagle said. “We have a thriving, growing population of bears in California, and as such they are coming into contact with humans more and more.

“We have to learn to live together, and it amazes me when people complain to us about the presence of bears. If you move to Tahoe, you have to expect (bears). It’s like if you live in a house near a golf course, you’re going to expect to get golf balls in your yard occasionally. Having bears around is one of the great, joyful experiences of living here.”

Cheryl Millham, executive director of Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care, Inc., has a simple recipe to solve the whole problem: just add seasoning to taste.

“You spoil the food (in the garbage),” she said. “I use a combination of hot Tobasco sauce and ammonia. The bear tastes that, gets sick and never comes back. It works.”

There have also been successful experiments in the Mammoth, Calif., area with shooting nuisance bears with rubber bullets, which doesn’t harm them but scares them off – apparently for good. And Nevada City, Calif., recently passed an ordinance requiring residents to own bear-proof garbage cans.

Tahoe Wildlife Care is a rehabilitation clinic for sick or injured animals, funded solely by private donations and staffed by volunteers. But Millham’s clinic cannot cater to anything bigger than the occasional deer – there are no rehabilitation facilities equipped for bears anywhere in California.

“The only other one I know of (that takes bears) is in Washington state,” she said. “We’re trying to build a bear enclosure here, but we still need to raise a lot of money (about $30,000). Right now, sick or injured bears have nowhere to go. They usually end up being destroyed.”

But not always. One bear cub that was trapped in August in the Gardner Mountain area is now the newest resident of the Folsom Zoo – along with another cub from Tuolome, near Yosemite.

“They just arrived today,” said Valentine, who is expecting two more bears from the Roseville, Calif., area next week. “They’ve imprinted on humans, so they can’t go back to the wild. But they’ll have a safe home here.”

The Gardner Mountain cub was trapped after Fish and Game had monitored it for several days, determining that the mother had disappeared. Another sibling also vanished.

Normally there would have been no room for bear cubs, but another bear the zoo had been caring for died of old age. So instead of starving to death in the wild, the cub now has a new home with other bears to play with.

“Sometimes there is a happy ending,” Valentine said. “I wish it could happen more often.”

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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