Tahoe bear break-ins could spike with drought-related food shortage

LAKE TAHOE, Calif. (KTVU) -- As the drought begins to impact wildlife, there is concern that California black bears are breaking into Tahoe homes because the lack of rain is contributing to a lack of food.

Now some wildlife activists want to lure those bears away from neighborhoods by feeding them where they live -- in the woods -- even though that practice is illegal.

The activists argue that the drastic action will help the bears survive.

There is already ample evidence of black bears encroaching on human territory. KTVU obtained a video clip that shows a bear wandering into the back yard of a Lake Tahoe home despite being illuminated by a flashlight.

Another bear busted into this Tahoe cabin.

"It splintered the door, which is solid wood," explained Ann Bryant, a wildlife advocate with Tahoe's BEAR League. "He obviously started pounding. Sometimes they'll turn backwards and they'll go 'Whoop!' [makes kicking motion] with their powerful back legs."

Bryant received a call from a neighbor about the splintered door and shattered glass. Once inside, it was clear from the wide open and raided refrigerator that a bear had pillaged the home.

"There's a lot more food in here, but they always go for the ice cream first," said Bryant.

The bear left behind an empty pint of Haagen-Dazs it had licked clean. Remnants of a to-go snack of chips and bread were found by a nearby tree.

But this was not the only house the animal hit that evening.

"There's another one, kind of in the same neighborhood just down the hill a ways," said Bryant. "We're going to go check that out."

Bryant and her Tahoe-based BEAR League volunteers respond to calls of bear break-ins.

"Yeah, this was a smaller bear than the other house," said Bryant.

What's different during this drought year, according to Bryant, is that it shouldn't be happening just yet.

"They're coming into our neighborhoods a little too early and a little too much," said Bryant.

Bryant is worried about more of the same and blames California's historic drought, now in its fourth year.

The Truckee River should be raging right now with rafters heading downstream and water stretching from bank to bank. The current low levels are an indicator of this severe drought in which mountain streams will be drying up very soon.

With a lack of water, so goes the natural food supply. Some fear hungry bears will enter populated areas more often and become problem bears.

"It's a concern, for sure. And we're monitoring it," said Jason Holly, a biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. "But we're not seeing any significant increases because of the drought and bears changing their behavior on a population level."

Holly says recent rains in the Tahoe basin should mean there's plenty of spring forage for bears. But that might not last with this winter's almost non-existent snowpack.

"We're very concerned about late summer without the snowpack," said Holly.

What Bryant fears is a repeat of 2007, when the then massive Angora Fire combined with severe drought resulted in a rash of Tahoe bear break-ins. The numbers sometimes were as high as ten a night.

"If it gets to the point where all hell has broken loose, we can't just sit back and hope for the best and wait for the worst," said Bryant.

One action she suggests is controversial, but it has been done before.

In 2007, volunteers placed natural food in the wilderness -- a practice known as supplemental or diversionary feeding -- to lure problem bears away from homes. This was to protect bears that could be shot if deemed a nuisance or threat. It was also against the law.

Holly disagreed with the tactics used by those anonymous wildlife activists.

"Its not only illegal to feed bears, its somewhat unethical," said Holly.

Holly says bears are well adapted to the drought. He argues the solution is for homeowners to secure their garbage so bears are not lured in. He says those that feed bears intentionally run the risk making them more apt to come around people or cause property damage.

"And if that happens, there's a higher possibility the bear might have to be taken," said Holly.

Bryant contends that the 2007 feeding experiment, while illegal, still worked.

"The results were amazing. In those neighborhoods where this was done, there were no more break-ins," said Bryant. "As soon as the bears caught on that 'Oh, there's food up there. Let's go up there.'"

Her hope is that California will allow a pilot feeding program under the guidance of Fish and Wildlife. She concedes that is unlikely to happen.

"I think you have to look at every option to avoid having an absolute out and out war," said Bryant.

A war that Bryant says she's seen before during a drought year when more homes were damaged and more bears shot. The question: is that coming in the summer ahead and, what -- if anything -- is the right solution?