Awake early, Tahoe bears search for food, find trouble

Former mayor: ‘Can’t kill our way out of problem’

By: - February 9, 2022 5:50 am

The bear known as Jake/Yogi, photographed recently in the Tahoe Keys. (Photo courtesy Ben Sherwin.)

Some residents of the South Lake Tahoe Keys know him as Jake. Others call the hefty bruin Yogi. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife officials call him a “severely habituated bear,” who, despite “months of hazing and other mitigation efforts… has caused extensive property damage and forcefully entered several homes…”

“There’s no doubt he’s damaged homes,” Keys resident Patti Sherwin says of Jake/Yogi. “But we invited it by leaving empty juice boxes and garbage lying around.”

She says the bear, who sunbathes in her backyard, is no threat to residents.  

Jake/Yogi, like other bears around the world, is finding it increasingly difficult to hibernate as temperatures climb and snowpacks thin. They’re awakening early or not sleeping at all, experts say, perhaps because of abundant or alternative sources of food.

“The high is going to be almost 50 degrees today, which is certainly unseasonably warm,” David Simon, an attorney and animal activist who lives near Stateline in Douglas County, said Tuesday. “Bears, who are supposed to be hibernating, aren’t getting the weather that they’re accustomed to for their normal, natural practices.”

During the last 100 years, the average daily minimum temperature in Tahoe has risen 4.2°F, according to the Tahoe Environmental Research Center at University of California, Davis. The average daily maximum temperature has increased 2 degrees.

A 2017 study found bears hibernate six fewer days for every 1°C (roughly 1.8°F) increase in winter minimum temperatures.

Snowfall in Tahoe, as a percentage of precipitation, was 5.4% in 2015, the lowest on record in the last century.

Spring snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere has decreased since 1967 by 1.4% per decade in April, 4.1% per decade in May, and 12.9% per decade in June, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA).

“We have not received any conflict calls due to bears coming out of dens early,” says Heather Reich, biologist for the Nevada Division of Wildlife. “We did have a couple of bears that postponed going to den until January, but for the most part, our bears den as we would expect.”

Some bears went to sleep hungry this winter after wildfires destroyed their habitat, and are awakening early as a result, says Dr. Staci Baker, a Tahoe veterinarian who cares for injured bears and abandoned cubs.

“We’ve had severe issues in town that have affected our wildlife and our residents,” says former South Lake Tahoe Mayor Brooke Laine. “We had the Caldor fires, which displaced a lot of our wildlife. We’re in the middle of a drought right now, which is wreaking havoc, and bears that would normally be hibernating right now are out and about and trying to find food sources.”

Leaves, berries and other plants consumed by bears have yet to grow, leaving bears no option but to forage where they’re unwittingly encouraged by careless humans.

Now, a trap set by CDFW next to a home in the Keys waits for Jake/Yogi to take the bait. Should that happen, he’ll likely be “dispatched” by wildlife officials.

“There are a lot of bears that we live with in the basin, and we consider them to be as important as we do our own quality of life,” says Laine. “If you’ve put traps up in the Keys, I don’t know how you know for sure that you’ve got the right bears. And the problem with the Keys is they have been a source of food for bears for a long time.”

“The majority of our citizenry, I believe, do not support the destruction of a bear simply because it broke into a house that had a food source,” Laine says. “The punishment doesn’t fit the crime. None of these bears have tried to hurt people. They’ve taken advantage of vacant homes that have food in the garage.”

Vacation renters, either unaware or unconcerned about trash disposal, previously posed a major problem in the Keys. But a voter-approved ban put an end to short-term rentals in South Lake Tahoe. Now, the challenge is gaining full cooperation from residents.

“Most people in Tahoe want to coexist with bears,” says Baker, the veterinarian.

But when it comes to bears and their exquisite sense of smell, most is not enough. One bad apple, improperly disposed of by a careless neighbor, is all it takes to put a bullseye on a bear.   

Until recently, bears dined in open community dumpsters in the Keys, says Sherwin, and the homeowners association prohibited ‘bear boxes’, containers that secure garbage.

“We need our residents and our visitors to understand how to prevent the attraction of bears breaking into houses,” says Laine. “We’re the source of the problem.”

Sherwin and the others say wildlife officials in California and Nevada are resorting to traps without implementing deterrent measures. CDFW did not respond to requests for comment.

Sherwin is holding a meeting for homeowners on Feb. 16 to propose a course of action that would require residents get help from the Bear League, a nonprofit organization, in deploying bear deterrents before calling in the government. Those who don’t comply would be fined, she says.

Laine says neighbors on one street in the Keys banded together after “something like eight homes got hit. They all put up defense mechanisms and they haven’t had a break in since. So we know it works. You can’t kill enough bears to get rid of this problem. We have to be a part of the solution.”

With the help of engaged humans who take responsibility for their actions and deploy effective deterrents such as electric wires, unpleasant odors like ammonia, and scrupulous garbage disposal, bears, she says, can be reconditioned.

“It would force them to go back to where they should be,” Laine says. “But they’re going to choose easy food over eating ten tons of berries. They’d rather have a pizza.”

Dr. Tony Naccarato, a resident of Eldorado County in California, called CDFW after a bear broke into his garage five times.

Efforts to trap the offender failed, but the break-ins ended when Naccarato and his neighbors installed bear boxes years ago.

“I didn’t want to shoot it. But I would have if I was forced to, which I’m glad never happened,” he says. “It’s a big deal when you shoot an animal and I didn’t want to do it. But it also destroyed my garage door five times.”

Naccarato says the bears “don’t freak out or confront anybody. They’re very timid. We love them. They’re part of living here. They were here way before we were.”

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Dana Gentry
Dana Gentry

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, two grandsons, three dogs, three cats and a cockatoo named Casper.

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