Tahoe Bears in the crosshairs: Area residents, bruins sometimes uneasy relationship

| March 29, 2013 | 1 Comment

Carl Lackey takes aim with a dart gun on a bear breaking into a Nevada garage.

By Jackie Ginley

Ten years ago, when Alpine Meadows was divided over the question of what to do with a well-known local bear, Tahoe Quarterly took a hard look at the conflicts between humans and black bears in the Basin. Residents had fed the bear as a cub, and in the space of a few seasons she had refined her tastes, preferring Haagen-Dazs to more banal varieties of ice cream and improving techniques for getting at her favorite foods.


Black bears can be 600 pounds of cuteness, until they open a door and thrash a kitchen. When she started breaking into houses, a permit was issued to have the bear killed, polarizing the Alpine community in what ultimately led to a physical standoff between the California Department of Fish and Game and Ann Bryant of the Bear League. The bear ended up in a Colorado wildlife refuge.


Sunny, Homewood’s so-called “swimming bear,” was not so lucky. Some called her the community’s mascot. Though never quite so bold as her Alpine cousin (no death warrant had been issued against her), Sunny was shot last summer and bled to death on a public beach, inciting a rage that trumps almost any controversy the region has seen over our confusing relationship with black bears.


Lake Tahoe Wall of Shame, a Facebook page set up by Incline Village resident Mark Smith in the wake of a previous bear killing, named the Homewood man believed to be the shooter; readers posted vitriolic comments saying he should be arrested (one poster said he should be shot). In other recent incidents, those seeking depredation permits to have bears killed have been the victims of vandalism. A similar controversy in South Shore last year led to a public campaign to boycott Sorensen’s, a popular Hope Valley resort run by the same owner for 30 years.


In the wake of a public debate that smacks of a lynch mob, we set out to ask: What’s changed in ten years since our first feature on black bears? The answer is, sadly: Not a lot.


“The bears have evolved way better over ten years than the humans have,” says Ann Bryant, director of the Bear League. “Ten years ago, they did not know how to turn a doorknob, now all the doors have to be locked. They’ve also learned to test windows to see if they’re locked.”


Black bears are largely a docile species, and predatory behavior against humans is rare. Attacks have occurred in situations when a bear feels threatened or senses a threat to a cub. But for the most part, black bears are motivated by their love of eating, and those habituated to humans can cause thousands of dollars in property damage in their quest to do so.


Homewood’s bear, Sunny, had no history of breaking and entering, but she was known to walk through open doors, and “every once in a while” into a kitchen, Bryant says.


“She was the epitome of bears and humans living in harmony,” she says. “And what happened to her? She was blown off the planet.”


But the idea that doors and windows must remain locked in Tahoe tests the limits some people will go to live in harmony with a species of bear becoming increasingly more comfortable among humans.


“We pretty much have coexisted with our bear population for the last 30-plus years,” says John Brissenden, who owns Sorensen’s and the neighboring Hope Valley Resort. Sorensen’s is a collection of cabins in the picturesque Hope Valley near Markleeville, California. At 7,000 feet, it shares the forest with all forms of wildlife, but last year, when a bear strolled through the kitchen and into the café like it had a dinner reservation, something had to be done, Brissenden says.


Guests ran from the dining room, and “given their urban experience, the staff felt they were threatened as well,” he says. “Not everyone will go face to face with a bear.”


Brissenden chased the bear into the woods, shooting at it with a paintball gun. Within 15 minutes, he says, it had returned to crawl through an open window in one of the cottages; Brissenden banged it on the head with a garbage can to get it to leave.


At 64, Brissenden is no stranger to the wilderness. He was raised in various rural settings throughout California and Oregon. He is not a hunter, and his 30-year track record of coexisting with Hope Valley’s black bears speaks for itself, he says.


Three bears were ultimately killed under state-issued depredation permits near the Sorensen property, two of which were identifiable from their ear tags as cubs that had been rescued by South Shore’s Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care and released back into the Hope Valley region.


“We were called murderers and executionists after we got the depredation permit,” Brissenden says. “Online, people were pretty vicious in their accusations.” Brissenden was attacked on Lake Tahoe’s Wall of Shame. Soon after, a new Facebook site appeared, “Boycott Sorensen’s.”


Brissenden’s attorney wrote to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg saying that the sites violate the company’s “community standards,” including the prohibitions against posting threats of violence or harm to others, bullying or harassment, the sharing of personal information of others and the posting of graphic content.


“You will see that in addition to inflammatory remarks about our business, these sites contain personal attacks against us and others (such as calling us murderers and making death threats),” he wrote.”Most recently, these sites have begun posting names and addresses of those who contact law enforcement on a rogue and potentially dangerous bear. The sites also encourage those that view the site to harass and bully us by making nasty phone calls, organizing an email campaign against us.” He concludes, “We hereby request that Facebook take action immediately to shut down these two sites.”


The Wall of Shame’s Mark Smith declined to be interviewed for this article, and a Facebook spokesperson offered a generic reply, saying, “We believe that sharing information, and the openness that results, invites conversation, debate and greater understanding… Where these groups make real threats or statements of hate, however, we will remove them. We encourage people to report anything they feel violates our policies using the ‘report’ links located throughout the site.”


Scenarios like these demonstrate Tahoe residents’ conflicted relationship with black bears—reflected in the vitriol of the debate on websites like the Wall of Shame—with locals and second homeowners often coming from different perspectives.


“We love our bears to death,” says Linda Masterson, Colorado-based author of the popular book, Living with Bears. Black bears, she says, are intelligent, resourceful and the females are model parents. Even biologists, who are expected to approach their science with no attachment, have been known to name many of the bears they study. “It’s very hard not to develop a personal relationship with a bear,” says Masterson. “But you have to take a long view of things, and recognize that a bear that’s breaking into homes is not going to do anybody any good.”


Tahoe homeowners who suffer property damage at the hands of determined ursine feeders know that only too well, and they represent in many ways the polarized opposite of those intent on protecting bears within the urban interface. Consider the Gatekeeper’s Museum at the “Y” in Tahoe City.


“Ursus Among Us,” the museum’s new educational exhibit on bears in the Basin, has been hugely popular since its debut last summer, but it has also offended some of the museum’s strongest financial backers.


“Some people want us to take the exhibit down because they are very angry about the damage that bears have done to their homes,” says museum director Marguerite Sprague, who is in the process of modifying it to include pictures of damage that bears have caused in some homes.


In the raging debate over bears this summer, the one silent voice is the man believed to have shot Sunny. The Department of Fish and Game says it does not have enough evidence to arrest the man for poaching. (Poaching is a misdemeanor in California carrying a maximum sentence of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine, department spokesman Pat Foy says, noting that the probability of jail time is low.)


The Bear League is offering a $15,000 reward for anyone with information leading to the man’s arrest. The League says that on the day she died, Sunny grabbed a soft shell cooler on her way back from one of her daily swims and ate its contents: cookies, chips and lemonade spiked with vodka.


No one can say beyond a doubt the identity of Sunny’s killer, and law enforcement officials have named no suspect. No depredation permit was issued for her, but Nevada wildlife biologist Carl Lackey poses an interesting question. In the wake of public protests that rose to the level of vigilantism, is it possible some members of the public would prefer to take matters in their own hands when it comes to taking care of a “problem bear?”


“Why would someone want to call and report it, knowing that they’re going to face public ridicule if they do?” Lackey asks of the Homewood bear. “People who get depredation permits have had that happen.” The names, addresses and phone numbers of people who have called in for permits, have been “plastered” across the Internet, says Lackey.


Bryant of the Bear League urges people to keep their comments civil and non-threatening. “I know in the past there were cases of vandalism against bear killers,” she says. “It makes us look like vigilantes.”


Moreover, it doesn’t serve the interests of protecting the bears, she says. Bryant devoted most of her years in Tahoe to defending animals that cannot speak for themselves, and her modest home on the West Shore is literally a sanctuary for injured wildlife. Much of her private sentiment is well documented on her website, where her periodic essays speak to her unmatched devotion for black bears. But even among those who live in the woods and respect the rules of living responsibly in bear country, Bryant is unique.


There are those who would “demonize” her, she readily admits. But her work has also raised awareness of the human causes of the conflicts with black bears—careless trash disposal. She’s famously been the subject of “Blonde vs. Bear,” a reality television show on the Discovery Channel.


If there is any bright spot in the future for California’s black bears, Bryant says, it’s in the work of Mario Klip, a bear biologist currently employed by Fish and Game who is testing aversion theories that involve the use of Korelian bear dogs and rubber bullets to drive bears out of the urban interface and back into the wilderness.


“If it saves the animal’s life, it’s worth it to give them a couple kicks in the butt,” says Klip. He traps bears in the Basin and equips them with a radio collar to monitor their movements on GPS before releasing them.


His research, part of his Ph.D. thesis at UC Berkeley, shows that at least one of the bears that got this “kick in the butt” traveled 50 miles out into the wilderness, hibernated, and has not yet returned to a populated area.


Bryant supports the research, but hopes the public won’t confuse it with the depredation process, which will continue. Klip’s research is not aimed at relocating nuisance bears; it’s testing the aversion theory on a random population.


“If we could do a better job of making bears feel unwelcome,” Klip says, “the problem would be a lot smaller.”


Jackie Ginley is a Truckee-based freelance writer who first wrote on the thorny subject of bears and humans sharing the Tahoe “lifestyle” in Tahoe Quarterly Spring 2003.



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