According to legendary Tahoe Basin bear whisperer Ann Bryant of the BEAR League, the Tahoe area doesn’t always react strongly when the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) chooses to kill a bear, but the recent trapping and killing of a medium cinnamon male bear in Tahoe Vista has quickly
galvanized the community to action in support of bear rights.
“In the state of California, making contact with a human is pretty much a guaranteed death sentence [for a bear],” Bryant told Moonshine Ink. In a case of human contact, the DFW’s policy is to get a DNA sample — left on the human or in
the surrounding area — from the bear in question to confirm they won’t kill a bear they trap who doesn’t match. But that’s not what happened here. This particular
bear’s crime? Eating food left in a truck parked in front of a home with opened windows and unlocked doors. Three times.
Bryant feels that this aspect of the incident was what brought the community together so rapidly and strongly in support of Tahoe’s bears and against both the complainant’s and the DFW’s actions. The man who requested the trapping and
killing of the bear is “a Tahoe local, so he knows better than that,” she said. “So [the neighbors] all assume he was baiting him because why else would he [leave food in his open car so often]? Because he hates bears. He hates them.”
The truck belonging to the man who made the call had been broken into by the same small, cinnamon bear three times before he requested a depredation permit from the DFW, each time leaving doors unlocked (“they all know how to unlock car
doors” anyway, Bryant said) and food in the front seat. Bryant said that multiple neighbors approached him asking why he was doing it, and that he allegedly made it known he wants “to kill all the damn bears.”
(Moonshine Ink is not naming the individual, who has been targeted on social media, and the BEAR league prefers to focus on preventative measures and positive solutions, and so does not want to name him).
The DFW issued a depredation (or “kill”) permit on the grounds of repeated property damage, and soon after the trap was set a cinnamon male bear was caught at 2 a.m. The bait worked; the trap door slammed shut and the trapper arrived. The complainant confirmed it was the bear, and the animal was shot before dawn.
Bryant and her allies were concerned about misidentification, which Bryant says happens frequently since most of the Tahoe area’s bears are cinnamon colored,
so she called the DFW for a description of the bear: “medium, cinnamon.” Innocent enough to have relayed a different size scale than the complainant, but Bryant,
with her 25 years of experience with the DFW, was suspicious. Sure enough, within days neighbors had captured on video multiple times what to them clearly was the original small cinnamon bear, harm-free, targeting trucks specifically searching for food. Bryant’s expertise tells her that they killed the wrong bear.
Other bear families in the Tahoe Vista neighborhood are lucky that many of the neighbors are far more supportive. After the depredation permit was issued and the trapper was given license to kill if the bear was identified correctly, a petition
against the trap circulated and over 25,000 community members signed it. They were concerned about two mother bears with cubs often spotted in the area.
“Our local children have been following the mama and cubs since their birth,” reads the petition on change.org that was directed at the DFW, demanding the removal of the trap and more discretion when issuing permits.
Two sets of moms with cubs actually frequent the neighborhood, “one mama has three cubs and the other one has a crippled front paw and she has two and they live right in that area,” explained Bryant. “In fact, right after the trap went in, the mom of three was heading that way.”
Bryant explained that if a mom takes the bait of a trap and the door comes down, the cubs won’t leave; so “they kill the whole family,” she said. Bryant described the scene of a DFW bear execution, in which the trapped bear is hooked up to the back of the trapper’s truck (these are officials contracted by the DFW rather than members of the department), driven away from human dwellings, and shot in the head in the cage multiple times because they usually don’t die on the first shot, during which Bryant describes the bear as “screaming.”
Community members rallied to chase their favorite bear family away from the trap destined for some cinnamon bear to be put down, eliciting the title of “hero” from
Bryant, who is certain that they saved her life.
SIGNS OF THE TIMES: Community members were asked by the organizers of the Coexist: Tahoe Bear Rally to bring signage with positive messages only, which clearly didn’t limit participants’ creativity. Photos by Becca Loux/Moonshine Ink
A Nov. 23 assemblage in Tahoe City labeled Coexist: Tahoe Bear Rally was directly inspired by this incident to promote bear awareness and proactive ways to avoid trapping and killing methods and prevent unwanted bear-human interaction. Over 200 community members attended the event, put on by the BEAR League and organized by local self-starting bear activists Megan McClintock and Callie Tomlinson. Tears were shed by many as they held signs (the organizers asked for positive messages only) and applauded at emphatic and passionate statements in support of the rights of Tahoe bears; changes that need to be made by the DWF; the responsibility of the citizens of the area to follow proper protocol to avoid future killings; and best practices to keep bears in the wild.
The DFW’s policy on issuing depredation permits “recognizes that bears react to the environment around them,” according to their website. The agency acknowledges that “it is natural for a bear to investigate all attractive smells and consume whatever seems like food. The only real solution to a bear problem is to eliminate the attractant.” The DFW categorizes bear/human interaction on a scale,
and is authorized to issue a depredation permit only in cases of direct contact, if the bear causes extensive property damage, or if there are repeated issues where all preventative measures have failed. It is stated by their policy as a last resort.
The DFW reports that roughly 40% of the time a permit is issued, the bear is killed. But according to longtime BEAR league volunteer Carolyn Stark, who spoke at the rally, this is a “disingenuous” figure: Stark maintains that about half the time a permit is issued, “cooler heads prevail,” and a trap is never set, but if a trap is set, “98% of the time, the bear will die,” she said.
Although the number of bears killed by the DFW has significantly decreased, the BEAR league and their allies are concerned that they aren’t following their own policies. “Tahoe is backsliding” when it comes to progressive bear solutions, Stark said. The BEAR League’s records show that of the three bears killed by the DFW this year, two (including the likely incorrectly identified cinnamon who inspired the rally) were shot without the DFW’s required due diligence to ensure that all preventative measures were taken. Last year, four bears were killed, and three of those times Stark said California did not follow their policy of killing as a last resort.
McClintock and Tomlinson (who Bryant praises for organizing the event in under a week) gave a series of neighborhood tips for addressing bears in ways that won’t lead to shootings. The best practices for doing what’s best for the bears and humans, which is making “sure that this bear knows that they’re not welcome in this neighborhood,” McClintock said, include locking car doors and keeping cars in garages; storing trash properly and making sure smelly trash isn’t left outside; not leaving food in cars or outdoors (McClintock’s car has been demolished by a bear with only tea inside); making sure dog and other pet food is inside the house; cleaning barbecues; not using bear attractants in bird feeders; and, most importantly, networking and strategizing with neighbors in a positive way.
“Let’s get rid of this hateful, spiteful [way of dealing with neighbors] that … did go around this week,” McClintock said at the rally, referring to ample backlash against the man who ordered the depredation permit and has been accused of baiting bears. She instead suggested approaching neighbors who may be uneducated about best bear practices (or allegedly baiting bears intentionally) with “confidence and a positive attitude.”
To deal with problem bears that won’t stay away, the organizers recommend contacting Ryan Welch, who founded the company Tahoe Bear Busters 10 years ago to provide solutions for bear/human coexistence. They provide electric mats utilizing electric fence technology that is safe for pets and shocks unwanted bruin visitors from coming back. The company has “wired” 500 homes, businesses, chicken coops, beehives, food trucks, dumpsters, and other enticing areas where bears shouldn’t be. One recent success story was the wiring this summer of Squaw Valley’s trash compactor, which used to see roughly five bear raiders a night and “hasn’t fed any bears since,” Welch said.
For Bryant, the debate comes down to what she sees as a difference in philosophy about the value of a bear’s life between those who think like her and the individual in this incident and the DFW.
“[Bears are] individuals, each one has a life that belongs to him. Who says you can take it?” Bryant asked. Her ideal outcome of all the current community energy behind the BEAR League’s cause is that activists are able to influence Gov. Gavin
Newsom, who she sees as a champion for wildlife, to more strongly regulate and enforce the DFW’s existing policies. Long term, she wants to reform the agency altogether.
“The time has come; we need a change. We need this hunter-based department to step up and represent the community, citizens of California, not just the hunters,”
Bryant said. “They are in the minority and … the public doesn’t think that way anymore.”
Main Image Caption: BEAR AWARE: The focus of a November rally in Tahoe City in reaction to a likely erroneous bear execution by the DFW, attended by over 200 concerned community members, was to mourn the loss of the bear, talk about ways the incident could’ve been prevented, and discuss neighbor-to-neighbor and independent strategies to keep bears in their habitats. Photo by Becca Loux/ Moonshine Ink