Black bears under siege in Nevada

Department of Wildlife kills more bears than hunters do, says critic

A yearling who stole a bag of garbage from a vacation rental scuries up a tree to avoid dogs used in an attempt to scare the bear away. (Photo courtesy: Dr. Staci Baker)

Nevada’s black bears are under attack by state regulators, according to some Lake Tahoe residents who allege they are also being targeted for trying to prevent what they contend is the needless slaughter of the animals.

“There’s a long history of the Nevada Department of Wildlife working with law enforcement to shut us up,” says Dr. Staci Baker, a  Douglas County resident and veterinarian. “It’s going to get violent at some point. Neighbors are fighting. Neighborhoods are fighting.” 

“It is NDOW’s practice, in my opinion, to intimidate and bully their detractors into silence,” says Carolyn Stark, an animal advocate who was sued by the Division’s biologist over comments posted by others on a Facebook page she manages. Stark prevailed on appeal.  

Another activist sued NDOW for calling him a ‘terrorist.’ The case is close to going to trial.  

Others, including Native American tribe members, say they’ve been questioned and investigated since attending a 2012 Wildlife Commission meeting to oppose the bear hunt. 

In 2011, the state’s black bears became fair game for hunters. 

“The Wildlife Commission approved a sport hunt. The purpose is to provide hunters with opportunity. It’s not a management tool,” says Kathryn Bricker of No Bear Hunt NV.  “It’s not to reduce conflict between humans and bears. It exists simply for the purpose of allowing the hunters to kill a bear.” 

Between September 2011 and the present, hunters “harvested” 101 bears. NDOW killed at least 59 more bears in the name of wildlife management during the same period, according to data provided by Nevada Department of Wildlife Assistant Director Jack Robb.  Hundreds more were trapped and relocated.

“Since the hunt began, the number one cause of mortality is the NDOW’s policies for conflict bears,” says Bricker. 

There has never been a fatal bear attack of a human in Nevada or California, according to  Robb, who says the division takes measures to keep it that way.

So-called “problem bears,” intent on satisfying their voracious appetites, break into homes, walk in through open doors, and are notorious for following their noses to the trash.  

Large steel bear traps increasingly dot neighborhood streets, complain residents, who say trapped bears are more often than not euthanized, rather than released, by the state.  

“We don’t want traps,” says Baker. “We live here because we want to see the animals.”

“They do one of three things when they trap a bear,” Baker says of NDOW.  “They let the bear go with aversive conditioning to stay away. Second, they take it and they kill it. Third, they stock the hunt zone.” 

“Stocking the hunt zone” means relocating a bear to an area away from its home, where it is without familiar sources of food, water and shelter.  

“Tahoe is where the bears live. But it’s illegal to hunt in the Tahoe Basin,” says Baker, who contends NDOW relocates bears to the hunt zone to appease waiting hunters.   

“The bears either get slaughtered by hunters or die trying to get back home,” says California bear advocate Anne Bryant.

“The people who say we are stocking the hunt, that’s inaccurate,” says NDOW’s Robb. “We’ve harvested over a hundred bears since the hunt started in 2011 and less than five of those are prior conflict bears, and only one of them was harvested in a location where it was released, between Gardnerville and South Lake Tahoe.”

Robb says in the last four years, NDOW has relocated bears “only in extenuating  circumstances.”  

“Through the use of collars, we found they would return or they’d become a problem bear in Yosemite or Kirkwood,” he says. “We don’t like relocating bears because of that. Our relocations have gone down to very few in very few circumstances.” 

Brutus, an old bear with a limp from being hit by a car, was a celebrity in Tahoe, residents say. He was eventually removed from hiding under a porch far from home and relocated by NDOW to Spooner Springs, between Carson City and South Lake Tahoe, according to Robb.  

“He was in a high desert with no food, no water, and no trees to hide in,” says Baker. “They set the hounds after him, circled him and shot him.” 

Robb says Brutus was indeed “harvested” far from his home but says that’s not where NDOW left him.  He also says the bear had previously been shot at numerous times with firearms not used for hunting, indicating he was a problem. 

“Brutus was a beautiful bear and he became a trophy,” says Baker, who says a photo of the slain bear appears on Nevada Hunting Services’ Facebook page.  

A ban on the controversial practice of hounding — releasing dogs to take down a bear for hunters — will be considered by the Wildlife Commission later this month.  

Changing landscape 

The bear walked in the open screen door of an Incline Village vacation rental property.  

“She didn’t break in,” says Baker. “She helped herself to a jar of peanut butter, went outside, laid on the grass and ate the peanut butter.” 

peanut butter bear
A young bear helps herself to a jar of peanut butter outside an Incline Village vacation rental before she was killed on site by the state, according to animal activists. NDOW officials say the animal was known as a problem bear. (Photo courtesy Carolyn Stark.)

“NDOW shot her on scene,” says Baker. “That was a middle finger to activists in Incline Village.” 

“When we decide to euthanize a bear, it’s because of an escalating consequence,” says Robb, who says NDOW officials were aware of the bear from previous incidents. “I don’t believe she was shot dead on the scene. I believe we put a dart in her and euthanized her later.”  

Baker says a mother and baby bear were killed by NDOW on a neighborhood street in Douglas County. 

“No, not on the street. We don’t shoot things on the street,” says Robb.  “That bear had easily been in an excess of five residences. We wanted to capture that bear and remove it from a conflict situation. The animal rights people interfered with our ability to remove that bear.”

“We made the decision to lethally remove the bear,” says Robb. The cub also had to be “lethally removed” according to Robb, because it had “learned the behavior of breaking in.” 

“Its ability to be a wildland bear is diminished. It would live in captivity in some place,” says Robb. “I, for one, believe a zoo is not a place for an animal to live out its life. Sanctuaries are hard on animals. It’s not a natural setting. They pace back and forth.”  

This weekend, a yearling stole a bag of garbage from the garage of a Douglas County vacation rental home.  

“The renters were not told anything about being in bear country,” says Baker. “They were told to leave the garbage in the garage. They thought the bear was cute and fed him bread.”

The neighbor became irate, according to Baker, because “a fed bear is a dead bear.” 

The renters got scared and had to be talked out of calling authorities, according to Baker. 

“If NDOW had been called, the bear would have been shot,” she says. 

“If we had a conflict bear that entered a house, we would dispatch and euthanize it,” says Robb.   

“If it was an unmarked bear, we would not euthanize a bear we did not have a positive ID on.”

Vacation renters are problematic, admits Robb. “Fifteen years ago we didn’t have the break-ins we currently do. You can’t educate fast enough with the turnover you have in the basin.”  

Last week, the Douglas County Commission passed an ordinance requiring short-term rentals be equipped with a bear box, a metal structure that bear-proofs garbage storage.

bears
One of many NDOW bear traps that line residential streets in Lake Tahoe. (Photo courtesy: Dr. Staci Baker)

“The added advantage of the steel boxes is that garbage can be put out several days in advance of collection without fear of intrusion by wildlife,” says Richard Miner, past president of the Incline Village & Crystal Bay Historical Society. ”We strongly feel that the impenetrable, steel bear boxes should be mandatory for all STRs but like many other appeals by full time residents these concerns have so far been ignored at the Washoe County level.

Robb says blanketing homes with bear boxes would be a game changer for wildlife regulators.

“If we could get that done our bear interactions would go down drastically,” says Robb. “We don’t have the money for it.”

“That would be a diversion of funds and we have to use our funds for wildlife-related activities,” says Robb, explaining the $15 million NDOW receives a year from the federal government can’t be spent on “urban wildlife.”   

“That’s a ridiculous statement,” says Kathryn Bricker of No Bear Hunt Nevada. “We are classified rural. We share the same habitat with the bears. We share the same pathways to get to the lake. We have homes in wildlife habitat. The wildlife inhabited this area for hundreds of years before we were here.”   

“We’re not in the trash business,” says Robb. ”We’re in the wildlife business.” 

“I have a problem with that. Every aspect of this is an issue for all of us if we are going to improve the situation,” says Bricker, who says Robb’s boss, Director Tony Wasley, has promised to add up the costs of NDOW’s bear patrol efforts.  

“We are paying NDOW overtime to monitor bear traps. We are paying law enforcement to intimidate citizens,” says Baker.  “Bear boxes would be a savings all around.”  

In Nevada, hunting, trapping and fishing interests dominate the Nevada Wildlife Commission by design. Although only a small percentage of Nevadans take part, they provide a good chunk of NDOW’s funding.  

But the majority of Nevadans, who will likely never use a weapon to kill an animal, are growing increasingly intolerant of killing for sport, according to public opinion polls. 

“Gov. (Steve) Sisolak could talk to his appointees on the Wildlife Commission” to enact changes that are more palatable to the general public, says Bricker.

“We worked to get him elected.  Now he doesn’t return calls,” says Baker.

A bill before lawmakers would strengthen the hunting industry’s grip on regulators by expanding the Wildlife Commission to include more representation for sportsmen.  

A committee hearing is set for Tuesday. 

“Not only should they reject this bill, but they should introduce one to reconfigure the makeup of the Wildlife Commission to more fairly represent Nevadans in the management of this public trust,” says Bricker. 

Dana Gentry
Senior Reporter | Dana Gentry is a native Las Vegan and award-winning investigative journalist. She is a graduate of Bishop Gorman High School and holds a Bachelor's degree in Communications from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Gentry began her career in broadcasting as an intern at Channel 8, KLAS-TV. She later became a reporter at Channel 8, working with Las Vegas TV news legends Bob Stoldal and the late Ned Day. Gentry left her reporting job in 1985 to focus on motherhood. She returned to TV news in 2001 to launch "Face to Face with Jon Ralston" and the weekly business programs In Business Las Vegas and Vegas Inc, which she co-anchored with Jeff Gillan. Dana has four adult children, a grandson, three dogs, three cats and a cockatoo named Casper.