LAKE TAHOE, Calif. (KRON) — How many “Hank the Tank” controversies are going to happen until Lake Tahoe’s leaders figure out how to help people and bears peacefully co-exist?
That was the central question posed by bear experts who spoke on a panel organized by the Sierra Club this week.
Hank the Tank is a 500-pound black bear who made international headlines after he broke into several homes for food and was at-risk of being euthanized by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Lake Tahoe locals, vacation homeowners, and state wildlife officials were clearly divided over how to handle Hank.
“The homeowners requested a trap. They wanted the bear gone,” said Kathryn Bricker, executive director of No Bear Hunt NV.
Local activists known as the “bear ninjas” were upset with the CDFW for setting up a trap. The ninjas sprayed-painted the trap with “Bear Killer” graffiti.
“The majority of Lake Tahoe basin residents do no support the destruction of a bear simply because it broke into a house seeking food,” Bricker said.
Fortunately for Hank, CDFW officials uncovered DNA evidence showing Hank was not the only bear burglar to blame in the Tahoe Keys. While 26 Tahoe Keys homes were broken into, Hank was exonerated from many of the break-ins and CDFW officials agreed to let him stay wild and free.
“DNA proved Hank is not responsible for even half of the bear home incursions. There are three other bears who have been in more homes than Hank… but he was taking the rap,” the BEAR League nonprofit wrote.
Twelve years before Hank, there was Bubba. Bubba was a 700-pound bear blamed for 50 home break-ins. Nevada’s wildlife agency issued a “shoot to kill order” for Bubba, Bricker said.
In 2013, researcher Kathryn Mazaika studied human-bear encounters to figure out what was driving conflicts and controversies surrounding bears.
Mazaika found that Lake Tahoe’s population is divided in four main groups: Fulltime residents, part-time residents who own vacation homes, seasonal workers, and tourists. These four groups strongly disagreed with each other whenever a bear incident arose. “Insiders” and “outsiders” rarely interacted with each other except when a human-bear conflict happened, she concluded.
Mazaika also found the Lake Tahoe’s governments and wildlife agencies were fractured because the region is divided up by two states, four counties, federal land, and state land.
“It’s a confusing array of ordinances and points of view. Bear know no geopolitical boundaries,” Bricker said.
Mazaika found that the Lake Tahoe community lacks a cohesive support system to address human-bear conflicts, so progress was very unlikely.
Nearly a decade after her research was conducted, “It appears to me she was very correct in that statement,” Bricker said.
Ann Bryant said she formed the BEAR League in Lake Tahoe 25 years ago because of one mother bear who lived near her house.
“When the mother bear and her cub were killed for getting into trash, the community completely came unglued,” Bryant said.
Bryant said relocating a bear doesn’t accomplish anything because when one bear moves out, another moves in. Euthanizing bears is also unproductive for similar reasons. “The dead bears don’t teach the (alive) bears any lessons,” she said.
Bryant said there would be far fewer human-bear conflicts if people changed their own behavior.
“Stop blaming the bears. They are not a ‘nuisance.’ They are not a ‘problem.’ They are not ‘aggressive.’ They are all just bears following their noses to find food,” Bryant said.
Bryant gave one example of a part-time Lake Tahoe resident who tossed apples out to a young bear daily. When the woman went out of town, the bear decided to go to the neighbor’s house to find its daily apple. The neighbor reacted by fatally shooting the bear.
To keep bears from becoming food habituated to people, they need to feel as unwelcome as possible in populated areas. Never feed a bear, and if it wanders into your yard, “stomp and yell at them. Give them tough love,” Bryant said.
“Bear awareness works. Understand how these animals think, and how to live with them,” Bryant said. “They are here because it’s their home. We built our neighborhoods in their forest.”
Every Lake Tahoe resident needs a bear-proof garbage can and home security devices that keep bears from climbing through windows and doors, Bryant said.
Experts urged homeowners to secure crawl spaces under their houses to keep bears from turning them into cozy winter dens.
This past winter, nearly 150 bears hibernated under houses around Lake Tahoe, Bryant said. One resident thought she heard snoring, but didn’t realize the snoring was coming from five hibernating bears until they woke up in the spring.
The startled homeowner called the BEAR League, which successfully evicted the bear family.
Bryant said fear drives bad decisions, and a big part of the BEAR League’s mission is to replace fear with facts.
Some people believe bears are “dangerous man eating monsters. They are not. No black bear has ever killed a person in California or Nevada,” she said.
Bryant said some people think all bear species behave the same. Grizzly bears are far more aggressive than black bears, she said.
A grizzly bear has not roamed through California since 1922. “There’s no more grizzlies. All we have now are the shy little black bears,” she said.
Another falsehood is that if a bear no longer fears people and is habituated, it is more likely to be aggressive.
“The bears that attack people are in remote wilderness areas. Bears who are comfortable with us are less likely to harm a human. Our bears know what we are,” Bryant said.
Bryant said fear is also driven by people not understanding the difference between a bear’s “bluff” and “attack.”
“I’ve never seen an attack. I’ve seen a lot of bluff charges. They will stomp on the ground, huff, spit, and come charging at you. It has happened to me many a times. But they always stop short and back away,” Bryant said.
Bears use bluffs to make defensive escapes. Law enforcement, state wildlife officials, and the media have often reported a “bluff” incorrectly as a “bear attack,” she said.
“If it was a bear attack, the person would be dead,” Bryant said.