There should be snow.
I keep having to remind myself that. This isn’t typical. Granted, it’s hard not to appreciate the ice-free, winding highway that cuts deep curves through the Sierra Nevada as Reno’s thirsty hills disappear in the rearview mirror. At the road’s edges, four-meter high snow poles wait for the end of the drought.
As I climb higher and higher, it becomes obvious I’m nearing Tahoe. Not because the alpine lake is visible through the dense stands of sugar pines and cedars. But because every single vehicle has the same slogan slapped to its bumper—Keep Tahoe Blue.
Founded in 1957 when developers proposed the construction of a four-way highway around the lake from California to Nevada, the League to Save Lake Tahoe has served as an environmental watchdog in the basin ever since. In 2012, the lake, which directly receives 40 percent of the rainfall in the watershed, reached its greatest level of clarity in a decade. It’s a source of pride, around here.
Now, facing their fourth year of drought, local activists are hoping Lake Tahoe’s residents will rally around the area’s bears, the same way they did for its waters.
Many ski resorts had to close up shop early this year thanks to the California drought. The Homewood Mountain Resort in Homewood, Calif., a mom-and-pop ski hill, had to close twice this year due to dry weather.
Perhaps nowhere in the West have tensions over bear-human conflict reached such a boiling point as in Lake Tahoe. Most of it, I’m told, is coming from the Bear League, a group on the California side of the lake that advocates for bears and education, often taking extreme measures. Blaming one group, though, seems like a bit of an oversimplification. With a couple hundred bears roaming the area, and no food or water besides the lake, it doesn’t surprise me bears are leaving the backwoods.
Still, I’m not sure what to expect when Ann Bryant, the League’s founder, invites me out to her home and office in Homewood, Calif. Bryant is currently being sued by two Incline Village, Nev., residents on the lake’s northern shore who claim they were harassed and subjected to death threats after reporting a nuisance bear later killed by wildlife managers. And the stories don’t stop there. The Bear League, and some of its followers, have been at the center of a number of controversies in this part of the West over the past few years. A mother and daughter team who followed the League’s Facebook group were convicted last April of tampering with a Nevada Department of Wildlife bear trap. And Bryant herself has been arrested several times for her activism on behalf of bears.
Bryant greets me at her home off West Lake Boulevard in a black Bear League sweatshirt, tennis shoes, and a pair of wraparound sunglasses.
Though mere meters from the roadside, Bryant’s property is like something out of a storybook. Moosh the yellow-bellied marmot watches us from the window, while Beauty, a partially blind raven Bryant rescued, rests atop the heaping woodpile on the front porch, next to the porcupine pen. It’s a bit of a woodland zoo—and that’s not even mentioning the three bulldogs, who loll at our feet, begging to be patted with jutted jaw smiles.
A March wind rustles the needles of the towering Jeffrey pines as Bryant tells me how she came to speak for Tahoe’s bears. It’s the story of a bear named Natalie.
In the fall of 1998, a bear locals named Natalie and one of her cubs were mistakenly killed by a trapper, contracted by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The trapper had been targeting a large male black bear but caught Natalie instead.
"For me, there is no such thing as a nuisance bear."
Executive director, The Bear League
Ann Bryant, executive director of the Bear League, at her home and headquarters in Homewood, Calif. Bryant founded the Bear League in the late 1990s following the death of a bear named Natalie who was killed through a depredation permit in the area.
Bryant, who insists on using names, not numbers for the bears, was the one who found Natalie’s remaining cub, crying for its mother.
“We wanted to make sure nothing like this would ever happen again,” Bryant explains in a raspy voice. “We trained 250 people from all the communities around the basin. We started a 24/7 hotline. And we’ve been going strong ever since.”
The Bear League was one of the first bear-centered education and advocacy groups in the United States. Bryant claims the League now receives up to 200 calls a day in late summer and fall, when bears are in hyperphagia. Those manning the phones will dispatch volunteers to consult with businesses or homeowners to try to come up with a way to find non-lethal solutions, says Bryant. This might involve removing fruit or bird feeders, or investing in a bear-resistant container.
In the Tahoe Basin, Incline Village and Truckee, Calif. are the only individual communities with bear-resistant bin ordinances, though there are several at the county level. According to the Nevada Department of Wildlife, only 25 percent of homes are actually using bear-resistant containers in Incline.
And not all the approved bear-resistant bins are actually all that bear-resistant. Many communities, like Boulder and Incline Village, still use retrofitted plastic bins or totes, which simply don’t stand up to a starving bruin. Metal, bear educators say, is really all that works.
The problem of such overzealous certification, Bryant believes, lies in the testing facility. Almost all bear-resistant bins in the United States are tested at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone, Mont. Here, bins stuffed with aromatic food are tossed into a pit of captive grizzlies. But as Bryant notes, those bears are a far cry from the black bears of the California drought—they aren’t hungry.
“There’s a bear named Fisher who tests them over at the Folsom City Zoo. But he’s fat; he knows he’s going to get fed, so he just plays with them.”
Bryant isn’t exactly the zany activist I had expected. She’s well-spoken and willing to say the things others won’t, but doesn’t seem “radical” by any means. So I ask her about the lawsuit.
“I’m not allowed to talk about it, really, but there’s not proof of anything they’re claiming. It’s a farcical nonsense. I haven’t been sued before, but I’ve been arrested.”
At the beginning of her stint as executive director, Bryant claims she was arrested “constantly.”
“They charged me. I was in jail. I was going to court. Thankfully, attorneys were coming forward to represent me.”
And while Bryant and California Fish and Wildlife have since reconciled, her relationship with the Nevada Department of Wildlife has soured in recent years.
Mikey the bulldog waits to be fed on the porch of Ann Bryant's Homewood, Calif. home.
Bryant abhors the Nevada bear team, and she scoffs at their statistics showing that NDoW didn’t kill a single bear in Incline Village last year.
“It’s all a political thing. Prior to that, they were coming in and just shooting them. It went into the media and it was ugly. They looked like Nazis. So they realized they had better change those statistics.”
Now, she says, they use 2014 as a glowing example that’s not indicative of other years.
Most residents, regardless of whether they’re vigilant with their own trash, don’t like to see dead bears in the paper. But no matter how many bears NDoW shoots, wildlife departments are ultimately responsible for the deaths of a small percentage of bears in the region. Most are killed by cars.
In 2007, one of the worst food years that saw two raging forest fires blaze through the area, 78 bears were killed on roadways around the Lake Tahoe Basin.
“That was a total drought, and it really moved a lot of bears,” says Bryant.
But 2015 stands to be even worse, thanks to the ongoing drought that has dried up large swaths of California. In preparation, Bryant is making plans to step up training and response tactics to deal with new urban bears, emphasizing the use of electric fences to keep bears away from doors and windows.
With all the forest streams desecrated, it’s backwoods bears crossing the highway to gain access to the lake. But unlike established town bears that sit at the roadside and watch for traffic, the malnourished backcountry bears don’t have street smarts.
“They’re just following the water. Where there’s water, there’s berry bushes,” notes Bryant.
When bears first awaken from hibernation, they’ll seek out new growth, like sedges and grasses, then they’ll start eating pine nuts, acorns, serviceberries, chokecherries, and thimbleberries. But it’s almost time for bears to wake up, and the woods around Tahoe are barren.
This morning, Bryant visited a nearby meadow, one of the bears’ favorite early-spring foraging spots.
“It’s already dried up. There’s not going to be anything,” she says, appearing crestfallen. “When you look at what’s going on, it’s just horror. Absolute horror. It’s going to be even worse than last year.”
Desperate bears, she says, will be heading to town in droves, unwilling to lay down and die in the backwoods. If garbage is locked up, that will direct their attention to other sources—like the small pond and thimbleberry bushes in Bryant’s front yard.
There’s also the ever-present concern of wildfire. Though wildfire can benefit grizzlies, restoring undergrowth, it can be devastating for black bears, ripping through the tall Jeffrey pines that take years to regenerate.
While most Americans think of Smokey when they think of forest fires in relation to bears, it was Cinder, a badly burned 18-month-old cub that arrived at Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care last year from Washington State, that highlighted fire’s impact.
Cinder had suffered third degree burns to all four of her paws, and was found crawling out of the forest on her elbows. In Tahoe, she made a full recovery.
Whether it’s wildfire or roadways, berries or trash, it seems bears and humans will continue to clash in Tahoe.
“To me, there is no such thing as a nuisance bear,” Bryant concludes. “People are creating a problem and they want to call it a ‘nuisance bear;’ but a bear is doing what a bear does—he’s finding food.”
"When you look at what's going on, it's just horror. Absolute horror."
Executive director, The Bear League
A sign warns of bears on Highway 28 near Incline Village, Nev. With bears crossing the highway to reach the waters of Lake Tahoe, more and more are ending up as roadkill. In 2007, a bad food and water year, 78 bears were killed on roadways around Lake Tahoe.
Since the early 2000s, Jon Beckmann and Carl Lackey have led the charge for urban bear research, monitoring behavioral changes and deterrents long before most mountain towns were even aware they had a bear problem. Today, their published research is considered some of the most comprehensive work on the biology of urban bears.
A 2003 study co-authored by Beckmann found that urban bears in the Carson Range experienced a 70 to 90 percent reduction in the size of their home range. And they were fatter, with an average of a 30 percent increase in body mass. Most importantly, Beckmann saw a 10-fold decrease in the number of bears populating the wildland; more and more bears were leaving their backwoods digs to become city dwellers. Most of those, though, were male. The few females who were in and around town were reproducing at a higher rate, though.
As for the relationship between hibernation and diet, the study revealed that urban bears were meeting their caloric intake requirements much quicker, and as a result sometimes stopped foraging earlier. Urban bears also entered their dens later than wildland bears, although exit dates remained largely the same.
I’m curious to find out if things have changed in the ten years since that study. It’s a cloudy, drizzly day when I meet up with Beckmann and Lackey at the IV Coffee Lab in Incline Village—the kind of place where the entire community comes to socialize over medical bags filled with coffee beans. Beckmann lives in Kansas and works as a scientist for the Wildlife Conservation Society, but he’s in town on bear business with his long-time research partner.
The biggest change, they explain, is the switch from male to female urban bears. It’s no longer primarily the big males in town, but females with cubs.
Some bears have also broken away from a typical hibernation cycle. For starters, though, bears don’t den down in the same way as other hibernators, leading many scientists to posit they’re not entering a true state of hibernation. Whereas a ground squirrel will drastically reduce its body temperature, slow its breathing, and have low metabolic functioning, bears metabolic rate and temperature are significantly less depressed. And unlike other mammals which awaken very slowly from hibernation, bears are easy to disturb during their denning period.
“We get a lot of bears here that hibernate underneath homes,” says Lackey in a gruff tone cultured and perfected by the West. “But every garbage night they’re out roaming the neighborhoods looking for food, so they’re not really hibernating. Instead they’re finding a daybed and coming out once a week.”
Instead of losing weight, like bears are supposed to do in the winter months, they’re gaining weight because their caloric intake is so high.
Tony Robinson, a volunteer with the Nevada Department of Wildlife, peers under the patio of a lakeside home in Incline Village, Nev. A male black bear had been using the spot as a temporary den during the day, ripping out insulation and leaving a food cache in his wake.
Bears have continued to empty out of the backwoods at an alarming rate in the Tahoe Basin, Beckmann and Lackey confirm. While female bears experience higher reproductivity in cities and towns, they also have a higher mortality rate. From 2004 to 2013, between nine and 35 bears were killed by vehicles in Nevada each year—a 17-fold increase in bear mortalities due to collisions compared with the late 1980s, when bears were just beginning to routinely eat trash. This means the wildland isn’t being repopulated.
At the time, Beckmann and Lackey weren’t able to definitively conclude that’s what was happening. Now they can. In the Lake Tahoe Basin alone, the swing in population distribution meant researchers were unable to capture a single bear in the Carson Range in 2008 outside of urban areas except at one small site, confirming a dramatic ecological shift.
Yet Nevada is largely considered a success story when it comes to black bear conservation. In the early 1900s, the black bear had nearly been extirpated from its Nevada range by overzealous pioneers and clear-cutting. Today there are about 500 bears in the state, and more than 20,000 in California.
As Beckmann elaborates on the successful return of the black bear to Nevada, Lackey shoves his smartphone in my face.
“Look at this,” he says, with indignation.
It’s the Lake Tahoe Wall of Shame Facebook page, a group that posts the locations of residences and businesses with unsecured trash. The top post reads:
“NDoW’s ‘bear team’ is in Incline this morning. Keep an eye out for bears and open trash.”
Lackey points out that one of the site’s administrators, Mark Smith, is sitting at a table a few feet away from us, microblogging our meeting. I’m struck by the irony. He was my next interview.
Lackey hasn’t won any favors with the activists in this town, since he’s often the one out trapping bears. But the numbers of euthanized bears aren’t exactly damning. His reputation as a “bear serial killer” seems largely unwarranted.
Rooster (left), and his daughter Dazzle are two Karelian bear dogs used by the Nevada Department of Wildlife to scare bears away from town. Rooster's offspring have been sent all over the world to help with aversive conditioning programs on other bear species.
Over the past decade, NDoW never killed more than 17 bears in one year for public safety reasons. In 2013, when over 100 bears were handled by officers, only five were euthanized—closer to the yearly average. Compared to Aspen and Pitkin County, that’s not a lot. Especially considering Lackey sometimes receives upwards of 1,500 complaints in any given year.
And Lackey makes an even stronger case for public safety kills.
“Think about what would happen to the bear population if or when a bear around here kills or seriously injures somebody,” Lackey outlines. “Right now, we’re taking those bears out before they do it. But if a bear kills somebody our politicians are going to force us to start taking more drastic actions with bears and you’re going to see (an) increase in the number of public safety kills. Guaranteed.”
He points to a 1996 attack by a five-year-old male black bear on a 16-year-old camp counselor in the Santa Catalina Mountains of Arizona, 48 kilometers from Tuscon. The state settled with the girl's family for $2.5 million in court.
“Now, any adult male they catch in an urban setting is automatically dead in Arizona. If we did that, I’d be killing 20 or 30 bears a year.”
But things have gotten so bad in Tahoe between NDoW and the Bear League that people are afraid to call for help with a nuisance bear.
“I’ve (had) people tell me they would rather deal with the bear breaking into their house than deal with the Bear League, because they come shining lights into their windows at night and posting phone numbers and addresses on Facebook.”
These problems don’t exist in the outskirts of Reno, where Lackey says he handles far more problem bears. “If you go south to the stateline, anywhere else in Nevada, there’s zero tension.”
Arguably, the Tahoe Basin doesn’t necessarily have a bigger bear problem than other areas of the West. Vocal opponents and cutting edge research simply make it look that way, Lackey says.
But, come to think of it, he adds later in our conversation, there is one thing that sets Tahoe apart from everywhere else in the world.
"If a bear kills somebody our politicians are going to force us to start taking more drastic actions with bears."
Nevada Department of Wildlife
Pine nuts are a main source of nutrition for Lake Tahoe's black bear residents.
In January 2014, bear managers picked up a yearling male black bear just south of Reno, lying in a snow covered field. The 50-pound bruin was lethargic—and a little too approachable. Managers sedated the bear and took it to the office of Dr. Peregrine Wolff for evaluation. The next day the bear was unable to right itself, consuming only the food and water that was placed directly into its mouth, shivering slightly as it did so. Showing no improvement, Wolff made the decision to euthanize the bear.
Tissue and serum samples were sent to the Oregon State University Veterinary Diagnostic Lab in Corvallis, Ore., but tested negative for Canine Distemper Virus, Canine Adenovirus, Rabies, and West Nile. However, the bear was found to exhibit encephalitis on its brain—lesions causing swelling. But a cause could not be determined. Unusual, yes, but Wolff didn’t think much more about it.
Then, in March, Carl Lackey found two more bears exhibiting similar behavior in Incline Village. The first, found in a city park, was “dragging himself by his front paws, and his back end wasn’t working.”
“We assumed he’d been hit by a car, but upon further testing, there was no trauma,” he says. Like the other, this bear was also overly habituated to humans. “I was able to walk up and hand-tranquilize the 225-pound bear.”
Weeks later, a yearling female was reported to be acting strangely north of Reno. Lackey recalls she was like a pet dog that refused to stay away. Both bears, average and healthy in shape, were eventually euthanized and sent for necropsies.
Then in June, NDoW started receiving calls about a very bold bear in Glenbrook, Nev. But unlike the previous three bears, this three-year-old bear was a recapture, originally caught as a cub in 2011. The bear also displayed encephalitis and was negative for multiple viral tests.
Veterinarians were baffled by this new mystery disease. The only thing Wolff and researchers at UC Davis and Oregon State had been able to determine was that the encephalitis was likely viral in nature, not bacterial or fungal. Lackey penned a column in the International Bear Association newsletter asking if anyone had seen this before in other species of bears. No one had.
When I return from Tahoe, I call Dr. Wolff, NDoW’s veterinarian.
“We still have more tests to try to rule more things out, but right now we have no clue,” she confirms. “I’ve been in touch with some of my colleagues in California that share the other side of the lake with us and they haven’t seen anything.”
There’s a possibility it could be equine herpes, Wolff notes, as captive bears have been known to contract the disease through horse meat. But Tahoe isn’t exactly horse country, so she’s puzzled as to where they could have picked it up. Moreover, bears are naturally healthy.
“They’re tough animals. They’re not getting diseases all the time and dropping dead.”
I wonder if this is something that’s come about because urban bears live at such high densities in Tahoe. Are they picking up the disease because they're overly habituated? Or is the disease making them overly friendly? It’s a chicken or the egg question.
“Nobody has reported it in other bears, but it’s hard because are there even non-urban bears anymore around here?” Wolff says, contemplating the issue. If the bear were wild, it’s doubtful anyone would ever have noticed.
"[Bears] are tough animals. They're not getting diseases all the time and dropping dead."
Nevada Department of Wildlife veterinarian
Back to top