Tahoe Dad: Bears in Tahoe

 

“Hey, do you guys want to see Mr. Bear?” our neighbor inquired.

“What? There’s a real live bear?” Wifey responded.

“Right there.” Our neighbor thumbed nonchalantly over his shoulder.

That was over ten years ago when we were newbies to Tahoe and had only really seen bears in artificial enclosures meant to resemble some post-apocalyptic styrofoam cave. At this point, we’ve certainly lost count of bear sightings, probably because our home adjoins some open space that bears use as a highway off-ramp to our neighborhood.

Something has changed this year though. The bears seem different, more active, more around, more something. “Oh, they’re just a bit more curious,” a friend who grew up in Tahoe says with a shrug.

“Isn’t it the drought?” I ask. “And the lack of high altitude vegetation.”

“Yeah, or the uptick in tourists this summer,” my friend laughs.

It’s true that bears are just part of life in Tahoe. As native to the region as the pale Palo Alto programmers squinting their eyes in the high-altitude sunshine. But shouldn’t there be fewer encounters?

“Ahhhhhh!!!!!” Jane’s piercing cry startled our family.

“Jane, we told you not to scream, it’s almost bedtime,” Wifey reprimanded.

“No…..Bear!!!!” she said pointing out the window.

Sure enough there was a big one, right outside in the backyard, climbing on our jungle gym and breaking branches in our apple tree. Wanting to discourage him from being comfortable around our house, I went outside armed with my wasp spray in one hand and bear spray in the other. I started walking confidently toward him and when he finally decided to notice me, he took off, which is what I wanted. But unfortunately I decided to add to his departure one shot with the bear spray, which by itself would have been fine, but for some reason, I continued to walk forwards, which was admittedly not my brightest decision.

“Well the stuff definitely works,” I coughed.

“How much of it got you?” Wifey asked.

“It couldn’t have been more than a few particles…” I said before putting my face under the kitchen faucet.

Law enforcement has certainly been using more aggressive tactics than bear spray of late. In one 3-day period the Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW) euthanized two black bears thought to be a threat to public safety, bringing the total of authorized local kills this year to 4. Chris Healy the NDOW public info guy said that they “hate having to do this, but a bear entering a house is a dangerous bear and… [they] have to manage the situation.”

I guess my first reaction to his statement is that the situation that needs to be managed is the people, not the bears. Why don’t we have a more stringent lake-wide penalty and fine system for those that leave trash unattended or homes and car windows open? Unfortunately, we are engaged in a “blame the victim” ethos when it comes to “management” of bears. Well if that bear wasn’t dressed so provocatively then maybe this wouldn’t have happened.

Wifey had a pretty serious encounter too. I was away on business in the Bay Area and she was home alone with the kiddos unloading groceries from her car. Fortunately, both Michael and Jane were already in the house when she turned the corner heading back to the car for a second load of groceries. There he was, to hear Wifey describe it, “standing on the door mat looking and breathing into the house.”

“So what did you do?” I asked.

“Well I put up both hands above my head and…. BAaAaAT, RaAaAH!!” Wifey imitated an enraged wildebeest on her hind legs thrashing her arms and head back and forth while stamping her feet and rushing at me.

“So you charged the bear?”

“I guess I did.”

“Nice work.”

A week later, when I was cutting our small patch of grass in the backyard, a tourist family on bikes yelled at me as I was returning to the open garage in front of our house, “Hey there’s a bear in there.”

“Marvelous,” I responded and pulled the chord on my lawn mower to start it back up. As I rounded the corner, the headlines flashed through my head,” Man Unsuccessfully Attempts to Battle Bear with Lawnmower and is Eaten.”

Fortunately the bear left the garage in between the time when the friendly tourist bike patrol had first seen it and when I valiantly charged my garage with a Honda mower.

We are certainly not the only family to have a few alarming encounters with bears this year. We’ve heard stories from friends who needed to bang pots and pans together to get a family of bears out of their garage. We know a couple people who have been bluff-charged this year and it certainly feels like things have changed for the worse.

For our families’ part, we finally took the step of getting a bear box installed. Not that we put our trash out the night before, but we’ve cleaned up after setting garbage out in the morning, probably from raccoons or coyotes, but still, that’s part of the problem.

I tend to agree with the Bear League that all of us living in Tahoe have the capacity to be “people living in harmony with bears” and need to take steps to protect them from our trash and teach them to be scared of humans. We should have a lot more informative bear protection signs around, like “Speeding Kills Bears.” I’m not sure of the number of bears struck by vehicles this year, but it looks like it’s over 10. And we need to do more to educate our visitors about bears, in Yosemite National Park, at every check-in counter between Camp Curry and the Ahwahnee there is a video playing on loop with some alarming footage of bears having their way with open car windows and doing the back stroke in dumpsters, we should certainly have a Tahoe equivalent playing at hotels and vacation rentals check-ins.

Now for the less popular opinion: I also generally think that hunters are more conservationist than tourists. California and Nevada both have bear hunting seasons and this regulated activity, albeit quite limited,  instills a healthy fear of humans in the bear population. This ultimately saves the lives of other bears who might think twice about waltzing into cabins and casually perusing the contents of our refrigerators.

“Dad, are you going to get the bear with your gun?” Michael commented as I extricated my head from under the kitchen faucet.

“You mean instead of using bear spray,” I said reaching for a towel.

“Yeah.”

“No buddy, I don’t want to kill a bear, I just want him to be a little more scared of us.”

“Why do you want him to be scared?”

“Because being afraid will keep him away, and keeping him away will keep him safe.”

 

Bears in Tahoe, Don’t:

  • Walk forwards after emitting bear spray.
  • Leave your door open when you go to get groceries.
  • Corner a bear in your garage with a running lawn mower.
  • Be a fool and put your trash out the night before garbage day.

 

 

Bears in Tahoe, Do:

  • Get a bear box.
  • Remember that bears live here too.
  • Scare them away from areas where they shouldn’t be.