By Lisa Herron, U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit
Spring is in full swing in the Tahoe Basin and Tahoe black bears are searching for food. Intentional or unintentional feeding of bears results in unwanted bear behaviors, increased human-bear conflicts, and public safety issues as well as fines and possible jail time for violators. Each year, local law enforcement and state wildlife officers respond to hundreds of calls in which bears may pose a public safety threat or are damaging property. In some cases, the bear must be euthanized. This year, agencies and local communities in the Tahoe Basin are unsure how the current situation surrounding COVID-19 and shelter in place orders may impact human-bear conflicts.
“Due to the current COVID-19 crisis, the Tahoe Basin is experiencing some unprecedented changes,” said Dan Shaw, Senior Environmental Scientist with California State Parks. “Our visitation is down and campgrounds have yet to open. Will the reduction of human food and garbage result in bears spending more time foraging in the wild or will we see increased bear activity in neighborhoods and developed areas? As natural resource managers, we are eager to track wildlife response to these changing conditions. One thing we know for sure is that humans and bears stand to benefit if we collectively reduce the availability of our food and waste for wildlife.”
The Tahoe Basin, located high in the Sierra Nevada, is a spectacular place to live and attracts millions of outdoor recreationists each year. This is also prime black bear habitat and the onset of warm weather encourages bears to leave their winter dens in search of food. As more people live in and frequent bear country, an abundance of human-related, unnatural food sources become available to bears. Bears are attracted to anything scented or edible and improperly stored food and garbage are temptations few bears can resist.
Once bears gain access to human food or garbage, they will continue to seek it out. They become less cautious of people and may display unusually bold behavior when trying to get to human or pet food. Bears that have become indifferent or habituated to the presence of people may cause property damage and threaten public safety. Residents and visitors can help keep our bears wild and reduce potential conflicts between bears and humans by acting responsibly in bear country and properly storing food and garbage in bear resistant containers.
When living in or visiting bear country, become part of the solution and help Keep Tahoe Bears Wild by following the precautions below!
Due to the uncertainty of COVID-19 recreation impacts, it will be more important than ever for residents and visitors to safely dispose of garbage and take all necessary steps to keep food away from bears. This responsibility must be shared by all of us. Bears are especially active in the spring and we need to remain vigilant about locking garbage, removing bird feeders, gleaning fruit off trees or picking up any that has fallen, storing pet food in secure locations and putting up electric fences around chicken coops and beehives.
At National Forest campgrounds in the basin, visitors are required to store food in bear-resistant containers (storage lockers/bear boxes), dispose of garbage in dumpsters and close and lock these containers or risk fines, jail time, or both.
Both California and Nevada law prohibits the feeding of any big game mammal. Proper food storage is also required by law in California State Parks. Food, beverages, scented items or ice chests left unattended may be confiscated and a citation may be issued. Visitors that violate these rules may be evicted from the park. All counties in Nevada that border Lake Tahoe have ordinances in place that prohibit residents and visitors from allowing wildlife access to garbage. Citations and fines can be issued for code violations.
The following are tips for safe-guarding homes, long-term rentals, vacation home rentals or timeshares (if permitted by the property owner):
- Never feed wildlife. This encourages unnatural and harmful foraging behavior.
- Store all garbage in and properly close bear-resistant garbage containers, preferably bear boxes. Inquire with local refuse companies about new bear box incentives and payment programs. Visit www.southtahoerefuse.com and/or www.ndow.org/Nevada_Wildlife/Bear_Logic/ for more information.
- Never leave groceries, animal feed, or anything scented in vehicles. Bears can open vehicle doors and they may cause damage trying to gain entrance if there are scented items inside.
- Keep barbecue grills clean and stored in a garage or shed when not in use.
- Keep doors and windows closed and locked when the home is unoccupied.
- Vegetable gardens, compost piles, orchards and chickens may attract bears. Use electric fences to keep bears out where allowed. Refrain from hanging bird feeders.
- If neighborhoods experience bear activity, consider using electric doormats and/or electric fencing on windows and/or doors where allowed. Electrified windows and doors should have signs posted for safety and to alert the public and emergency personnel. Contact local vendors and installers for appropriate products and instructions and/or visit www.ndow.org/Nevada_Wildlife/Bear_Logic/ for more information.
- If a bear enters your home when you are present, keep out of its way and do not block its escape route.
Tips for safe-guarding campsites against bear encounters:
- Never feed wildlife.
- Always store food (including pet food), drinks, toiletries, coolers, cleaned grills, cleaned dishes, cleaning products, and all other scented items in the bear-resistant containers (storage lockers/bear boxes) provided at campsites. New bear resistant coolers that come equipped with padlock devices should always be locked to meet bear resistant requirements.
- Clean the barbecue grill after each use and store properly.
- Always place garbage in bear-resistant dumpsters in campgrounds or in bear-resistant containers at campsites (storage lockers/bear boxes), and close and lock after each use.
- Never leave food or scented items unattended in campsites, tents, or vehicles. Bears can open vehicle doors and they may cause damage trying to gain entrance if there are scented items inside.
- Never leave garbage at campsites.
Tips for hikers and backpackers:
- Hike in groups and keep an eye on small children.
- Keep dogs on leash. Off-leash dogs can provoke bears to respond defensively.
- Watch for signs of bears, such as bear scat along trails or claw marks on trees. Stay alert. Make noise while on trails so that bears know you are there and can avoid you.
- Never approach bears or cubs. Always, keep a safe social distance and never get between a sow and her cubs.
- Store food in bear-resistant food storage canisters while recreating in the backcountry.
To report human-bear conflicts in California, contact the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) Northern California dispatch at 916-445-0380. Non-emergency wildlife interactions in California State Parks can be reported to their public dispatch at (916) 358-1300. Wildlife incidents in California may also be reported online using the CDFW Wildlife Incident Reporting (WIR) system at apps.wildlife.ca.gov/wir. To report human-bear conflicts in Nevada, contact Nevada Department of Wildlife at 775-688-BEAR (2327). If the issue is an immediate threat, call the local sheriff’s department or 911.
For more information about peacefully coexisting with bears, visit TahoeBears.org to learn everything about living, visiting and playing responsibly in bear country. By working together, we can help Keep Tahoe Bears Wild! TahoeBears.org is made possible through funding from California State Parks.
This collaborative agency effort includes California State Parks, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Placer County Sheriff’s Office, El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office, Nevada State Parks, Nevada Department of Wildlife, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency and the USDA Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.
Northern California’s Outdoor Digital Newsmagazine