Wildlife officials combat Tahoe bear misinformation

State wildlife officials have stepped up efforts to dispel false and potentially dangerous information about Tahoe bears that officials said has been circulating in recent weeks through posted flyers in the area and online.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) said folks were being encouraged to intervene in helping Tahoe black bears survive by feeding them, allowing them access to their garbage as well as providing access to the spaces under their homes for hibernation.

"This is false and extremely harmful misinformation that is detrimental for bears," CDFW said in a release last month.

Then last week, the agency issued a new alert with specific details combating the claims that were being spread. The CDFW offered what it called facts, supported by science, as it provided information in partnership with the Tahoe Interagency Bear Team (TIBT), made up of bear experts across state and local agencies.

Experts said that the claim that bears were starving and needed people to feed them to stay alive was categorically false.

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"Black bears are some of the most resilient and adaptive animals and they can tailor their diet to what is available around them," the CDFW said.

They noted it was true that the animals require a large amount of calories, especially as they prepare for winter. "But giving them handouts will not set them up to thrive," officials explained.

And they warned that the practice reinforced behavior that put both people and bears at risk. "Giving a bear food will teach it to keep coming back and possibly investigate further by breaking into homes, vehicles and garbage bins," state officials said, adding, "This behavior will also condition cubs to do the same and continue a cycle of human-dependent bears."

Experts also stressed that allowing the animals easy access to people’s garbage to rummage through for food, could make them sick and damage their teeth, which can lead to painful and potentially deadly abscesses.

Wildlife officials explained that bears are resilient omnivores with instincts to forage in the wild and said they play a vital biological role in the health of forests, from spreading seeds to helping to control insect populations.

"If people teach bears to search for food in neighborhoods or other developed areas, that biological role is lost," the CDFW said. 

And the agency also provided a serious reminder, saying, "Importantly, feeding bears is ILLEGAL in the states of California and Nevada."

On the claim that bears need help denning during hibernation, the CDFW warned that bears can cause a lot of damage under homes, tearing out wood and insulation, and breaking and exposing pipes. 

Residents were urged to board up crawl spaces around homes to keep bears out.  

The longtime non-profit, The BEAR League echoed that urging. For almost 30 years, the group has worked with the community to help keep bears and humans safe, responding to bear encounters and educating the public on how to safely co-exist with the animals.

Executive Director Ann Bryant says the group has received hundreds of calls from residents who need assistance when they find that a bear has taken shelter under their home. But the organization said it has not heard of a single instance in which someone deliberately made their crawl space an inviting place for bears. 

Bryant said she and her volunteers were often called by alarmed homeowners who an uninvited bear guests under their home during hibernation season, which begins around November.

Just last month, The BEAR League was called to a home after a handyman inadvertently installed electrified bear wires as a deterrent to keep out a bear that had decided to make itself comfortable under a home in the North Lake Tahoe area. 

The handyman set up the wires, mistakenly believing the large uninvited four-legged resident had left the site for the time being. 

The league was called when it became clear that the bear was still on site and now trapped, as it was tried to escape by chewing its way out through a small vent. 

Volunteers temporarily disengaged the wires and "scooted" the animal out. 

"Best way to avoid this entirely is to secure your crawl space opening before the bears go inside," the group wrote on Facebook, as the league shared a video reel of the bear getting freed.  

Bryant said every year, the number of house calls has increased.

"We moved 78 bears out from under people’s houses [last year] because they didn't secure their crawl space," Bryant explained, adding, "So it's more and more every year. We have several bears hibernating under houses now."  

Both the BEAR League and the CDFW warned that residents want to avoid allowing the animals to settle on their property in the first place. 

"Once a bear gets nice and cozy, it can be difficult to get it out. This increases the chances of human-bear conflict and habituated behavior," state officials warned. 

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The state department of wildlife also sought to dispute the claim that bears belong in neighborhoods. While it might be an exciting thing to witness, it not only puts people at risk, but places the animals in danger of getting struck by a vehicle.

"If a bear is in a neighborhood, encourage it to move on by scaring it away so that it can lead a safe, natural life in the forest," officials urged.

The CDFW said the agency along with the Nevada Department of Wildlife have committed black bear experts dedicated to creating the best environment for the animals to thrive and remain wild. Wildlife officials encouraged the public to contact them for any bear-related incidents or questions.

To report bear incidents or conflict in the Lake Tahoe Basin, people were urged to: 

  • In California, contact CDFW at (916) 358-2917 or report online using the Wildlife Incident Reporting (WIR) system.
  • Non-emergency wildlife interactions in California state parks can be reported to its public dispatch at (916) 358-1300.
  • In Nevada, contact NDOW at 775-688-BEAR (2327).
  • If the issue is an immediate threat, call the local sheriff’s department or 911.