Did you know there are bear whisperers among us? Ann Bryant of the BEAR League has been protecting and educating about one of the region’s largest and most famous furry inhabitants for over 25 years. Here, she answers your questions about increased bear-human interactions, and fatalities, injuries, and other consequences for bears.
- There seems to be an uptick in bear fatalities on the road. Can you confirm this? What does the BEAR League think are the primary reasons for this increase?
This season, we have definitely seen an increase in bears being hit by cars, and earlier in the year than we normally do. The BEAR League receives calls daily from motorists who collide with a bear (or another driver who witnesses the accident). Thankfully, about half of the bears survive the impact and are able to get off the road and into the woods, sore and wounded, but alive and able to mend. However, far too many also die immediately or suffer on the side of the road. This is terribly upsetting for our residents and visitors to see and it’s tragic beyond words for the bears. We believe the phenomenon is escalating due to the obvious increase in traffic all around Lake Tahoe and Truckee and far too many of the drivers being totally unaware that they must watch for wildlife crossing the roads. While it is true that sometimes a bear, or other animal, will dart out onto the road and it’s impossible to avoid a collision, most of the time a collision can be averted simply by being watchful, driving the speed limit, and being constantly aware that this is wildlife habitat. If a mother bear is hit, her cubs will remain with her on the road and can easily be hit as well.
There have been times when one bear dies, other members of the family will not leave them, and they are soon hit as well. There is no excuse for this. Call the BEAR League if you see something like this, so we can respond as quickly as possible.
On a good note: We have observed some of the Tahoe bears who seem to have figured out they should look both ways before crossing. They will approach a roadway and stand on the side watching for vehicles coming from either direction and then, when the coast is clear, they will safely cross. We are not making this up … the bears are apparently evolving around the presence of humans (and our vehicles) in their ancestral forest habitat. They are smart.
- What can we do to make the roads more bear friendly?
The best way to make the roads more “bear friendly” would be for everyone who lives or visits Tahoe/Truckee to be aware and pay attention while driving. The roadways are not just for cars, they are also an un-natural barrier for wildlife to be able to get from where they are to where they need to go … for food, for water, for shelter. We all have to remember that when we are behind the wheel.
Many people think it helps to install Bear X-ing signs throughout the Basin, and years ago the BEAR League was successful in obtaining several of these signs through the highway departments in California and Nevada. Within days of installation, most were stolen, and replaced again and again. But beyond that, the signs seemed to make no difference whatsoever in the manner in which people drove. They were useless other than to notify visitors to the fact that bears live at Tahoe. Overpasses and underpasses are an excellent way to keep wildlife off the roads to a degree, but they are unbelievably costly and are not really suited to the Tahoe Basin. They are used more successfully along interstate highways in big open spaces. We have researched this option and are convinced it could work well along the Highway 80 corridor, but not really along the smaller roads that circle the lake. The under-roadway creek culverts are a good option for the wildlife, and many of them use these to cross to the other side. Raccoons and coyotes travel these pathways as well. Bears do tend to follow the creeks to the lake, which then lead them safely under the roads. Please keep this in mind and don’t block their access. If you live along a creek corridor, be grateful for the wildlife you can watch instead of complaining that they are too close to your property. They will only veer off course if you invite them by leaving out attractants like food, unsecured trash, or bird feeders.
As I’m writing this, the bear hotline rings. A young cub has been hit by a car just two blocks from BEAR League Headquarters. We are off to see if he’s alive and if we can help him.
An hour later … He died almost immediately, his life cut short on a curve in the road and no one even bothered to stop.
- More and more videos and photos of bears interacting with humans and stumbling into human-occupied areas have been surfacing, implying an increase in bear-human interaction which is dangerous for both species. What are the best practices for dealing with this?
Bears have always lived in the Tahoe National Forest, since long before that’s what it was called. The Washoe People lived alongside the black bear and respected the species as brothers. Back before Europeans came to Tahoe there were also grizzly bears. They were much more dangerous. The grizzlies are all gone now, with settlers killing the last one in 1922. Of all eight species of bear, worldwide, the black bear is the easiest and safest for people to co-exist with.
Our bears are very comfortable living amongst us: They den under our homes every winter (at least 100 of them); they give birth to their cubs in our cozy crawl spaces; they dine on our trash “donations” that we put out on the curb days before the trash collector arrives; they join us at the beach in hopes we will share our snacks and picnic lunches with them; they come into our yards searching for wasp traps, birdseed, squirrel food, and open kitchen doors. And in all of these multitudes of encounters, not a single human being has ever been killed by a black bear in California or Nevada. Ever.
Each year we kill at least 3,000 bears in both states. (Some in the unpopular bear hunt, some by poachers, some by depredation permits … and many with our vehicles). Who is the dangerous beast? We are. We also kill the bears with our “kindness.” We love them to death. We invite them to feel comfortable in close proximity to us. We talk sweetly to them and make them feel welcome. We stand and take videos of them instead of yelling, “Go away!” … we feed them, on purpose or inadvertently. We feel bad about yelling at them and letting them know they shouldn’t be this close. We make neighborhood pets out of them. And this is the problem. We must tell them the exact opposite in order to keep them safe and stop them from feeling like they can hang out in our gardens and under our decks.
It’s called “tough love.” When you yell at them you can say, gruffly and aggressively, “I love you, now go away!” Not that they will understand the words but perhaps you’ll feel better about it. The two most important tips to remember are: Don’t be afraid of the bears … make bears afraid of you! And, no food; be mean.
We can teach our bears what the boundary lines are; it just takes perseverance. We all have to recognize that there is very probably a big hungry bear (bears are always hungry) hiding out behind a tree in our yard, waiting for us to make a mistake so he can score a meal. A mistake like leaving the garage door open for a few minutes with the trash or extra dog food inside. A mistake like leaving a pack of gum in the car and not locking the door. A mistake like leaving the slider open into the kitchen and going to fold laundry in another room. A mistake like unloading groceries and leaving them on the deck to run inside and answer the phone. You get the idea. Each time we make a mistake like this, the bears plan on a repeat and never forget. They are smart. We, too often, are not.
The BEAR League is here to help, in any way we possibly can. Give us a call, (530) 525-7297 or check our website for lots of information at savebears.org
~ Ann Bryant, executive director, BEAR League