It was Thursday, May 30 in Incline Village, and a Nevada Department of Wildlife pickup truck motored through town with a cylindrical metal bear trap in tow.

Its destination was a condo on the northern end of the Mountain Golf Course, where the splintered remains of a garage door told an all-too-familiar Tahoe tale — another hungry Incline Village bear had gone searching for food, forcing its way through the plywood that stood between it and a garbage feast.

But the Nevada Department of Wildlife trap did not move through town unnoticed. A group of bear advocates who have become increasingly connected through social media started lighting up the Internet with up-to-the-minute information on the wildlife department’s moves.

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Photos of the trap, calls for volunteers, and photos of the sheriff deputies and game wardens at the scene were posted to the Lake Tahoe Wall of Shame’s Facebook page. And the comments came flooding in, hundreds of them, expressing disgust, outrage, and anger at the bear trap.

Soon residents were placing Pine Sol-soaked teddy bears on the trap to keep the bear away, walking dogs in front of the apparatus, and according to Madonna Dunbar, Incline Village Improvement District resource conservationist, even spending the entire night camped out in the driveway next to the trap.

By Saturday, the community uproar had grown so loud, and the trap had become so ineffective, that a Nevada Department of Wildlife pickup hitched the trap to its tow bar and drove away.

The incident highlights a growing schism between the Nevada state agency tasked with dealing with Incline Village’s black bears, and community members galvanized against a department that they say is too quick to kill the bruins. The controversy has been simmering since Nevada Department of Wildlife Biologist Carl Lackey provided data to support last year’s controversial new bear hunt in Nevada, and was recently enflamed by the trapping and killing of beavers in the community, said IVGID General Manager Bill Horn.

EARLY BEAR ACTIVITY
This spring and summer, a series of bear interactions kicked the controversy into overdrive. A thin young bear wandered into traffic on Mount Rose Highway and sat down on the snowy shoulder of the highway. The Department of Wildlife was called, and the bear was tranquilized. Either because the tranquilizer dose was too heavy, or the bear was too thin to handle the dose, the bear died. In early May, a bear that neighbors called Cloud entered the garage of a 92-year-old woman. The bear was tranquilized, but before the tranquilizer took effect it climbed a tree. When the sedation kicked in, the bear fell to the ground, severely injuring itself, requiring it to be euthanized. After that bear’s death, the tension that had been brewing exploded into outright hostility.

Now, the rift between the Nevada Department of Wildlife and the staunchest bear advocates in Incline Village has widened into what seems like an unbridgeable gulf. An online petition that has been signed by more than 1,000 people calling for state biologist Carl Lackey to be fired from the department. The wildlife agency, meanwhile, has called online threats and trap tampering “dangerous.” The mistrust between the two sides has settled into a type of stalemate. Some property owners have refused to allow the wildlife department’s bear trap to be located on their property, and many residents have stopped calling the department with information on bear activity.

“The situation seems to be exacerbating rather than finding any point of resolution,” said Dunbar.

“The people in the community that care about the bears feel so upset. I have never seen them this upset. They feel powerless.”

And frustration is mounting on both sides. Nevada Department of Wildlife Spokesman Chris Healy said, “Chatter is chatter, but some of it has gone past the point of good judgment to the point of being threatening, and that is unacceptable and that needs to be reigned in.”

All of this comes on the front end of what may be one of the worst bear seasons Tahoe has ever seen. Two dry winters in a row have bear experts expecting Tahoe’s plants and shrubs to dry up early, forcing black bears to seek food and water in urban areas as they bulk up for winter hibernation.

“[This season] will be reminiscent of 2007, which was like an apocalypse,” said Ann Bryant, executive director of the Homewood-based BEAR League. “They were getting hit by cars, getting killed by wardens, and busting into homes.”

WILDLIFE OFFICIAL UNDER FIRE
In 2007, the Nevada Department of Wildlife captured 158 bears, nearly double the number it had captured the year before. And 62 bears died in Nevada in 2007, nearly twice the number that died in 2006, and more than six times the number killed in 2003.

If this summer’s bear season is even close to being that active, controversy will most likely follow wildlife officials and bear advocates throughout the Tahoe summer.

Despite the controversy, Lackey said he has been consistent in his policies toward bears.

“I know what my job is,” said Lackey. “Actually, I am not doing anything different now than 15 years ago when I was Ann Bryant’s best friend.”

Jason Holley, a wildlife biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, called Lackey “a stand-up bear conservationist.”

“He has done more for bear conservation in the western United States than anyone would believe in Tahoe,” said Holley.

Bryant disagrees. She said the bear deaths that Lackey has been involved in just this early summer is an indication of a problem.

“Whenever Lackey gets involved there is a dead bear, whether it is an accident or on purpose,” said Bryant. “The problem is not the Nevada Department of Wildlife; the problem is Carl Lackey.”

WILL BEAR ENCOUNTERS LEAD TO BEAR ENCLOSURES?
But despite all the disagreement and controversy, it appears there is one thing that everyone sees as a solution. A mandatory bear-proof garbage container law could significantly reduce bear conflicts, both sides agree.

“We have thousands of homes and thousands of visitors and thousands of points of access,” said Dunbar. “The community has to step up to the plate and realize that if we don’t want these bears killed, we have to be the best housekeepers possible.”

Dunbar said that Incline Village should look to other communities that have successfully handled bear conflicts without resorting to killing as many bears. The City of Aspen has a mandatory bear-resistant garbage container ordinance. And cities like Missoula, Mont. even allow homeowners to rent bear-proof garbage containers for $10 a month. These policies differ from Tahoe trash ordinances that allow garbage to be stowed in garages that determined bears now break through.

Healy said the Nevada Department of Wildlife is stuck in a position where it is tasked with reacting to problem bears that have been trained to seek out human garbage during years of loose garbage management. Healy said the department is seeing “multi-generational garbage bears” because of a failure of Incline residents to keep their garbage contained.

“In a perfect world, everyone would have bear-proof garbage containers and we could all get out of this business,” said Healy. “There have been a lot of failures before we are called.”

The open question is: Can the community and the state agencies get over a relationship that has become, in some cases, outright hostile, in order to work together to solve the problem?

“If nothing changes, there will be more dead bears,” said Bryant. “If they take this as a reason to look at it with different eyes, this could be a launching point for something really proactive.”

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  • David Bunker

    David Bunker almost dropped out of journalism school to hunt non-native rats on an uninhabited Pacific island. Instead, he graduated college and launched into a career of dump truck driving and ditch digging before taking up writing as a profession. He’s written for newspapers and magazines across the West and won numerous first place awards in the California and Nevada press associations.

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