Tuesday, November 30, 2021
Nov. 30, 2021

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Their homes survived the Caldor fire. Then Tahoe’s hungry black bears moved in

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — With the Caldor fire raging dangerously close to their Meyers-area home in late August, Justin Child and his girlfriend, Kristina Covey, had just minutes to pack a few belongings and grab their Great Dane, Disco, before evacuating.

When they were allowed back into their neighborhood on Sept. 11, they found their home still standing. But they quickly discovered that a black bear, one of the hundreds that live in the Tahoe Basin, had pried open the sliding glass door and spent hours inside the house foraging through cupboards, the refrigerator and the freezer.

Trash was strewn all over the house. Most of the home’s cabinet door hinges had been bent. The doors between rooms were ripped open.

“He peed on the floor in several places,” Child said. “He peed on the carpet upstairs. He explored the entire house, and the door was left open during some of the heaviest days of smoke in the basin. So my house smells; it reeks of smoke and bear pee.”

Since Sept. 1, there have been at least 84 calls to authorities reporting potentially dangerous bear encounters or break-ins in South Lake Tahoe alone, according to the police department. That’s a substantially higher number than usual, something biologists say is driven by bears being pushed out of the woods and into areas that had been evacuated around Lake Tahoe. They joined bears that have resided in and around the Tahoe Basin neighborhoods for decades.

Biologists say Tahoe’s resident bears, estimated at between 300 and 500 animals, are some of the most densely populated in North America, drawn to the large amounts of human food and garbage brought to the region by the more than 3 million tourists who visit each year.

The bears in Tahoe are exceptionally well fed to the point that female bears — called sows — are regularly seen with three or even four cubs, an usually high number for a bear in the wild, said Jason Holley, a biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Wildlife officials in Nevada and California say those resident bears have grown brash in recent years, even before the evacuation left the neighborhoods vacant to all but firefighters and law enforcement officers. For years, some of Tahoe’s more aggressive bears have regularly broken into homes, sometimes leading to dangerous encounters with people inside.

These encounters are on the rise throughout the state, as California’s drought and wildfires have forced bears to wander farther than they otherwise would, seeking food and water. This year alone, more than 7,400 wildfires have burned at least 2.25 million acres in California.

“And when they come across human resources, it’s like, ‘Why would I spend 10 hours looking for my food in the forest all day long, digging up grubs, when I got this dumpster right here?’ “ Holley said.

South Lake Tahoe resident Justin Jordan returned home after being evacuated from the Caldor fire to find food and trash stewn about his house from a bear break in. JUSTIN JORDAN

Earlier this month, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife warned those who were returning from being evacuated from a fire in Three Rivers in Tulare County to be mindful of bear encounters.

“As you approach your residence, look and listen carefully for signs that a bear has been or is in your home,” the department said in a Facebook post. “If a bear is in your home, call 911. Do not attempt to chase it out yourself. Your safety is your responsibility!”

Shooting inside home

Even when fires aren’t burning in the Tahoe Basin, bear encounters in and around homes have occurred nearly every year, and sometimes it doesn’t end well for the bear or the human.

In late June, a man who was staying at a vacation home in the South Lake Tahoe-area heard a noise upstairs when he got back from a late dinner. He grabbed a handgun he had left in the drawer of a downstairs bedroom.

What happened next is described in a Department of Fish and Wildlife incident report The Sacramento Bee obtained through the California Public Records Act.

The man told officers that a bear he said weighed approximately 500 pounds growled and swiped aggressively at him as it approached him from the upstairs and stood on its hind legs before charging him and knocking him over.

“The bear placed its mouth on (the man’s) arm during this portion of the incident. However, the bear did not bite down,” the report says. “(The man) then fired a shot at the bear’s head with a 10mm Glock handgun. It appeared he may have hit the bear between its eyes. (The man) stated the bear then moved in the direction of the bathroom and sliding glass door. (He) fired approximately 2-3 additional shots at the bears’ upper body area before it exited the residence through the downstairs sliding glass door.”

At 7:30 the next morning, wildlife officers followed the bear’s blood trail to a forested area close to some residential streets. The bear, which appeared to weigh between 400 and 500 pounds, was still alive — barely. Blood was dripping from its mouth as it breathed, according to the incident report. The officers shot it to end its suffering.

The wildlife officers went back to interview the man again and take a look at the evidence inside the blood-smeared home. The officers wrote it appeared the bear was able to get inside by opening the downstairs sliding glass door, and was lured in by food in the upstairs kitchen.

“Based on the totality of information, it appears reasonable that (the man) feared for his safety while in close contact with the bear. Based on statements, it also appeared (he) was in a position where he was unable to move away from the advancing bear.”

The wildlife officers deemed the shooting justified, and no charges were filed.

But, as so often happens in Tahoe when someone kills a bear, animal rights activists went on the attack.

Activists furious at killing

Founded in the late 1990s, the Bear League’s mission is to prevent wildlife agency officials and others from killing Tahoe’s bears, under the belief that bears and humans can coexist in Tahoe, so long as humans don’t lure the animals into trouble.

Along with coaching people to properly stow trash and bear-proof homes and vehicles, for years, the nonprofit has served as a sort of unofficial animal control agency, with its own bear-conflict hotline and teams of volunteers who’ll respond when called to haze away a bothersome bruin.

The Bear League maintains a large social media presence and will use it to heavily criticize those who have a bear killed, triggering complaints that the organization orchestrates harassment campaigns. The Bear League denies it does that.

In early August, Tahoe’s Bear League alerted its 32,000 Facebook followers to what the organization said was new information it had obtained off social media about the shooting inside the South Lake Tahoe home.

The Bear League erroneously said the man who killed the bear was an unnamed law enforcement officer from Stockton.

“When we first posted this, and the news agencies ran the story, everyone wondered why a man on vacation in Tahoe would have a gun with him,” the Facebook post read. “And everyone wondered why the Sheriff didn’t consider this a crime. Nothing made sense. Until it became clear who the man is…. He’s a cop from Stockton….. Brothers in arms.”

The Bear League took the post down the next day. The Bear League said in a second post that “we stand 100% behind every word in our post,” but the reaction in the comments had reached a fever pitch, with “people commenting/speculating with names of the officers whom they claimed were involved in the shooting.”

“We value our law enforcement officers and want no part in defacing innocent good men/women,” the Bear League wrote. “The individuals named in the comments had nothing to do with this crime. Others jumped on board and were demanding that horrible things happen to whoever shot the bear (we call that terrorism).”

The El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office took to Facebook to refute the Bear League’s statement.

“Contrary to speculation on social media, it should be known the man who shot the bear is not employed as a law enforcement officer and is in no way affiliated with a law enforcement agency,” the sheriff’s office said. “He is a private business owner from out of the Tahoe area.”

After activists began contacting his department demanding the officer be disciplined, Joseph Silva, a Stockton police spokesman, said he called the Bear League to inform the group that the shooter wasn’t a Stockton officer.

The Bear League’s second post, however, was never removed. On it, a commenter pointed out that officials emphatically denied that the man who shot the bear was a police officer.

“Well, let’s hope he’s been fired, then…. problem solved,” the Bear League replied.

The man who shot the bear couldn’t be reached for comment. The man listed in the report as the person who alerted authorities to the shooting at the vacation home didn’t return multiple messages from The Bee.

The Bear League’s executive director, Ann Bryant, provided The Bee with screen grabs from a man’s social media accounts that the Bear League relied on to label the shooter as an officer.

But the man in those photos isn’t the one whom the Department of Fish and Wildlife identified in the incident report as the shooter, though his name does match the name of the man who called 911 to report the bear attack. It’s unclear whether the man is pictured in a police officer’s uniform or whether he’s a security guard.

Nonetheless, Bryant said the Bear League had “a legitimate reason to believe” the shooter “either was a cop or told anyone and everyone who would listen that he was.”

“I also think there is still a whole lot more than any of us (ECSO, DFW, me, you) can even begin to figure out at this point, and the plot continues to ‘thicken,’ “ she said in an email. “Hopefully, someday we will know what really happened, perhaps after we get the (attorney general) involved.”

For years, residents who have received lethal “depredation permits” from the Department of Fish and Wildlife have been subjected to threats and harassing phone calls and emails. Homes and government bear traps residents had placed on their properties have been vandalized.

When a Tahoe Vista man was harassed after he had a destructive bear killed in 2019, Charlton Bonham, the head of California’s wildlife agency, wrote a column in the Sierra Sun newspaper, blaming the Bear League for creating “violent posts on their social media accounts about our employees.”

Bonham also accused the Bear League of “fearmongering tactics” and “a demonstrated history of targeted personal attacks” that left people too frightened to get a depredation permit to remove a problem bear.

Bryant told The Bee in 2019 that while she believes no bear should die because irresponsible humans leave out food or their homes unsecured, the Bear League isn’t responsible for activists going on the attack when one of Tahoe’s beloved bears are killed.

“We get blamed for it,” Bryant said. “The (wildlife) department constantly says, ‘You terrorize people. You make threats.’ We don’t do that. Why would we do that? Why would we risk our reputation?”

Dangerous encounters

Over the last few years, biologists studying Tahoe’s bears said certain ones have grown so inured to being around humans that they’ve begun tearing the siding off homes and prying open doors to reach human food in buildings and vehicles. Biologists said the sows appear to be teaching their cubs the tricks of the trade, ensuring the problems persist.

This has at times led to substantial property damage.

In 2019, officials said bears damaged more than 75 homes in a single west shore Tahoe neighborhood. At least one of the homes sustained close to $100,000 in damage.

Occasionally, the confrontations become dangerous when people get in the bear’s way.

Since 2014, at least nine people have been charged, swiped at or mauled by bears in and around homes and businesses on California’s side of Lake Tahoe, The Bee reported last year.

Among the worst of the encounters came in 2017, when a man confronted a bear inside a home in Tahoe City. He got swiped by a bear’s powerful paws. He required 32 staples to patch up his wound.

Holley, the California bear biologist, said almost all of the attacks have happened when someone gets between a bear and its exit route; the bear isn’t intentionally trying to hurt anyone.

“Truly, if we were on the menu, there would be a person taken every day,” he said.

Cleaning up the mess

Lifelong Tahoe Basin resident Justin Jordan came home from the Caldor fire evacuation to find the bear that had smashed two windows and ransacked his kitchen outside his South Lake Tahoe home he rents with his roommates.

After shooing it away, they found their kitchen strewn with garbage and the remains of their food supply.

“It was just a big ol’ mess,” he said.

Jordan said he doesn’t blame the authorities patrolling South Lake Tahoe during the evacuation for not doing more to try to haze away the bears. Many were seen sauntering for days through empty residential streets looking for easy meals.

“I feel like they did the best they could,” Jordan said. “There’s a lot more bears visiting than usual. They all came out from the fire.”

As a renter, Jordan won’t be on the hook for the damage the bear caused. His landlord will have to replace the windows the bear broke and fix the shelves in the refrigerator the bear bent as it dug around.

That’s not the case for Child, the homeowner in nearby Meyers who also had a bear break-in while he and his girlfriend were evacuated.

He’s facing an expensive cleanup and repairs — something he said his insurance company initially balked at paying, due to his policy not covering damage from “vermin” infestations.

“I was just kind of dumbfounded,” he said. “I saw a pretty good quote today in response to this … that said, ‘Let’s drop a bear off in their office and find out which exterminator they’re going to call.’ I think of vermin, as, you know, rodents. I mean, would they call a moose ‘vermin’ if a moose broke into somebody’s house?”

He said the adjusters have since called him back to tell him they would likely pay, a major relief since he needs a new fridge, dishwasher, doors, cabinets and new carpets from the bear urine.

“I’m not looking for a windfall here,” Child said. “I just want my house the way it was.”

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