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Bearly Wild: Bears look for food in middle of populated South Lake Tahoe

KCRA Sacramento logo KCRA Sacramento 10/17/2020
a car parked on the side of a road: Bears in Tahoe © Provided by KCRA Sacramento Bears in Tahoe

Fall is the time of year when Tahoe black bears are the boldest. They’re gearing up for their winter hibernation and packing on quadruple the typical number of calories -- up to 25,000 calories a day for an adult male bear.

So they’re already hungry and active. Top that with the fact that Tahoe bears, like the rest of us, have had a rough 2020.

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With last winter's low snowpack and a very dry summer, their natural food sources are limited. Now they’re looking for food anywhere they can find it, including right in the middle of town.

“We have a population of what I call urbanized black bears. These bears literally just spend most of their life – day in and day out – within the city limits here in South Lake Tahoe,” said Toogee Sielch.

Sielch is co-director of the Sierra Wildlife Coalition and the man to call if you’ve got a bear living under your house, in your attic, or hanging out in your car, which is not uncommon in the Tahoe basin.

“They’ve become very accustomed to having access to our trash, getting into our garages with refrigerators and there’s even bears breaking into houses and getting into refrigerators,” he said.

Alecia Rutledge lives in the Al Tahoe neighborhood of South Lake Tahoe, right in the middle of the city. She says she sees a bear in her neighborhood at least once a week, and they are amazingly smart and opportunistic

“They have extraordinary sense of smell -- seven times that of a bloodhound. So they know what you’ve got in the refrigerator, they know what you’ve got on your grill and they know what’s in your trash can,” Rutledge said.

A research project between the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the California Park Service may help slow the urban bear activity.

Biologists aim to capture and release as many black bears within the Tahoe Basin as possible this fall. Their goals are two-fold: to create a genetic inventory so that they can follow the bears and their activity, eventually linking DNA from a refrigerator break in with a particular bear that has been tagged and numbered.

The other goal is to haze the bear upon its release by yelling, honking horns and scaring it to create a negative association with humans, in hopes that bears will be less comfortable hanging out in town, and more afraid of people.

Bear experts say the natural instinct bears used to have when it came to humans, served an important purpose and kept those bears living happier and healthier lives in the wild.

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