Bad news, bears

Northern Nevada’s drought has brought bears into Reno to raid the local garbage cans

Bears and cubs are out on a limb for food.

Bears and cubs are out on a limb for food.

Courtesy Of Syvlia Dolson

“Yogi Bear is smarter than the average bear, Yogi Bear is always in the ranger’s hair. At a picnic table you will find him there, Stuffing down more goodies than the average bear.”

If the theme song from the cartoon show is true, then Yogi Bear has a lot of competition these days for the mantle of “smarter than the average bear.” In fact, some black bears are even showing up at the University of Nevada, Reno this fall.

OK, OK—they’re not in the classrooms, but state wildlife officers say they are concerned—but not surprised—by the staggering number of sightings of wild bears throughout the Reno area, including on the UNR campus just north of downtown. The Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW) handled more than 400 calls of bear sightings in Washoe and Douglas Counties during August, a record.

“We’ve never been through this intensity before,” says Chris Healy, NDOW’s public information officer. “We just went off the chart with bear sightings.”

The numbers are expected to increase further this fall.

“We’re expecting to see a lot more action” over the next few weeks, Healy warns. Fall is when a bear’s biological clock tells it to go into an eating frenzy, building up fat to carry it through the winter, when it hibernates inside a den.

Normally, the bears would be content to feast on nuts and berries up in the mountains, steering clear of cities and humans. But the ongoing drought, coupled with this summer’s record heat, has forced the critters to change their plans.

“The nuts and berries just didn’t develop,” Healy explains. “When they don’t have their natural foods, they have to expand their search. They’re eating up to 20 hours a day now, constantly in search of food, and suddenly the sun comes up, and they’re in the middle of the city.”

Washoe County Sheriff’s deputies examine a large “garbage bar” that was tranquilized after repeatedly rummaging through resident’s trash cans at Incline Village during July 2006. This same bear was shot to death this summer after breaking into a home. It weighed 660 pounds.

Courtesy Of Nevada Department of Wildlife

An estimated 300 black bears live in the Tahoe Basin, one of the largest concentrations in North America. Local experts break the bears into two groups: “wild” bears and “garbage” bears.

“A wild Sierra Nevada black bear is probably 150 to 200 pounds,” Healy says. They forage on natural foods, such as nuts, berries and other fruits. While their normal habitat is up in the mountain forests, they’ll amble into backyards if necessary to chow down on fruit trees or even birdseed. Healy says the bears they have trapped in Reno—and those spotted at the university—are wild and are simply broadening their search for food.

Reno resident John Hull says it was “one of the cutest things” when he and his wife spotted two bear cubs in a tree behind their cabin near South Lake Tahoe. About 20 neighbors gathered, cameras clicking away, as the cubs noshed on birdseed.

Apparently, the bears had been feasting on the seeds for some time.

“I should have figured it out earlier, when I found the bird house knocked off the tree a couple of times,” Hull says. “In my defense, I stopped putting out birdseed once I realized it attracted bears.”

Garbage bears pose the biggest problems. They’ve graduated from nuts and berries to leftovers found in garbage cans and Dumpsters.

“The garbage bears are just crazy,” Healy says. “Human food has more calories, and their goal is to get fat (for hibernation), so they get really fat!”

A case in point is the enormous garbage bear that broke into a house in Incline Village in August in search of food. At 660 pounds, it was the biggest bear ever tagged in Nevada.

The bear was a known troublemaker. In the summer of 2006, NDOW officers had tranquilized and relocated the bear after it was caught repeatedly rooting through garbage cans. This summer, the bear signed his death warrant when a resident called 911 early one morning to report that a bear was inside the home.

As bear habitat increasingly dwindles, authorities try to trap and relocate bears found searching for food near homes.

Courtesy Of Nevada Department of Wildlife

Washoe County deputies arrived at 130 Rubicon Peak Lane to find a screen torn off a downstairs window.

“Our deputy peeked through the window, and the bear ran right at him,” a department spokesperson, deputy Brooke Keast, recalls. “He shot at the bear and grazed him. He was a huge bear. He was living underneath the deck of another house about a block away. There were boards missing from this deck, and it was apparent he’d been there for some time.”

It was underneath that deck at 843 Freels Peak Dr., that deputies and wildlife officers found the bear about three hours after the initial call. They flushed the none-too-happy creature into the backyard.

“He was going at one of the Department of Wildlife people, directly at him,” Keast says. “They had to take him out.” A deputy killed the bear with a deer slug fired from a shotgun.

“Once they break into a house, that is a death sentence for the bear. There’s no ‘strike one, strike two, strike three,'” says NDOW’s Healy. “If a bear breaks into a house, it’s a threat to human health and safety, and it will be euthanized.”

So far this year, five garbage bears have been euthanized in the Reno-Tahoe area, another record.

Black bears don’t just one day wake up and decide to burgle a home in search of food. It’s a gradual process that begins when a bear discovers that eating leftover people food from the garbage can be an easy way to put on the needed pounds.

Fruit trees, bird feeders and garbage are all “bear magnets” according to Carl Lackey, a biologist with the Department of Wildlife. “Anywhere in or near bear habitat—southwest Reno, Washoe Valley, Lake Tahoe—if you allow a bear access to your trash one time, you create a problem,” he explains. “And most people let a bear into their trash several times before they take care of it.” Once a “wild” bear gets a taste for human food, he becomes a “garbage” bear.

The solution—bear-proof garbage containers—seems simple, but there’s little appetite for them in Northern Nevada.

Karelian Bear Dogs owned by Nevada Department of Wildlife biologist Carl Lackey harass a black bear as part of NDOW’s aversion conditioning.

Courtesy Of Nevada Department of Wildlife

“We’ve been preaching the bear-proof trash cans for 10 years in Nevada, and Douglas County is the only county that’s bothered with an ordinance,” Lackey says. “In a drought year, you’re going to have wild bears coming down into town looking for food. But if things were bear-proofed, and they weren’t able to find food, they would disappear.”

Douglas County’s ordinance doesn’t mandate bear-proof garbage cans but can force a homeowner to buy one if a bear’s been sighted in the person’s trash twice within two years. The ordinance currently applies only up at the Lake, but commissioners are talking about the possibility of expanding its reach into the foothills.

At Incline Village, trustees from the General Improvement District are considering ways in which to make the town more bear-proof. But, as the experts point out, if garbage is still available at lower elevations, bear-proofing the mountain will simply force the bears down into the valleys—shifting the problem but not solving it.

“Food is easier to find in garbage cans than in the woods,” says Capt. Steve Kelly, who heads up the Washoe Sheriff’s sub-station at Incline Village. He says bear sightings are now “a daily occurrence,” which could be curbed by making garbage inaccessible to bears.

“This is a long-term problem that we as humans have ignored,” he says.

Washoe County commissioners may find it hard to ignore a request from the Department of Wildlife. Its director, Ken Mayer, is asking the county to cut his agency a check for as much as $50,000 to help pay for the added costs associated with the record numbers of bear calls. Commissioners haven’t ponied up any money yet, but they have agreed to create a task force to study the increasing problem. One of the items on their checklist is the possible need for bear-proof trash containers.

Carl Lackey is undaunted in his push for action.

“Anywhere along the urban interface—Tahoe and foothill area from Reno to Gardnerville—really should have mandatory bear-proof trash containers,” he says. “If you go to the Yellowstone or Yosemite areas, they don’t mess around. You have to have a bear-proof container, period.”

The same is true in Whistler, Canada, a popular ski resort similar to Lake Tahoe. (See sidebar story, page 16.)

In an episode of the cartoon series, Yogi Bear struggles to stay awake all winter long, just to see what he has been missing out on during hibernation. This winter, Yogi wouldn’t face much of a struggle in Northern Nevada. In fact, the year-round availability of human garbage actually encourages some bears to skip hibernation altogether.

“If bears hibernate, it’s not because of the snow or the cold,” Lackey explains. “It’s because of the lack of forage, the lack of food. When we have a year-round food supply available—such as garbage left out every Tuesday night or Wednesday night—they don’t have to hibernate at all.”

It’s usually in late November, around Thanksgiving, that bears begin to hibernate, living off their stored fat until spring. But this year, it will be a different story. Lackey predicts that “dozens” of bears simply won’t bother going into dens.

“It will be mid-to-late December when they start hibernating—if they go in at all,” he says.