Tensions high over Tahoe bears

Drawn by the scent of months-old garbage, the mother bear clawed her way into the garage of the Lake Tahoe condo – twice.

But when Ian Knight, a game warden with the Nevada Department of Wildlife, showed up to capture her, he found himself outsmarted – not by the bear but by bear-lovers.

People huddled near his culvert-like trap, waiting to shoo the bear away if it returned. Some booed him. A woman cried. He sniffed the air and caught the scent of Pine-Sol, a bear deterrent, on the trap; inside, someone had tossed two teddy bears.

“It makes me frustrated,” Knight said. “I’m just trying to do a job, trying to help these bears not cause problems and move them into a different area.”

Rimmed by snow-clad peaks, as blue as a tropical sea, Lake Tahoe is one of the nation’s most magnificent settings. But today, that splendor masks a divisive drama onshore: a bitter battle over bears.

On one side are members of the Bear League, a feisty California nonprofit, and other animal activists who say too many bears are being lured into danger by careless trash management and needlessly killed.

“They are just gorgeous creatures, and they are so misunderstood,” said Carolyn Stark, a Bear League board member who helped maintain a round-the-clock vigil at Knight’s trap. “It’s so unfair. I want to help protect them.”

On the other side are wildlife biologists who say such action risks backfiring by allowing bears to become too comfortable around people, making them potentially more dangerous.

“They are allowing bears to progress up that ladder of conflict,” said Carl Lackey, a bear biologist with the Nevada Department of Wildlife. “Once a bear is inside somebody’s house, we have to go in and kill the bear.”

Activists aren’t just thwarting game wardens. Some are making threatening late-night calls to residents and business owners who have reported bear problems, and posting slurs and threats online.

This year, Incline Village landscaper Tony Robinson said he received two anonymous calls after he reported a bear problem and a wildlife biologist arrived with a trap.

“The first was like: ‘If you don’t get rid of that trap, we’re going to kill you,’” Robinson said. “The second one (said), ‘We’re going to destroy your business and screw up your boats and destroy your property.’”

In California, John Brissenden, manager of Sorensen’s Resort near Lake Tahoe in Hope Valley, said employees were threatened after two bears were killed there in 2012.

“We were branded as murderers and executioners,” said Brissenden, a board member of the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, a state agency, and a longtime conservationist. “It was alarming, discouraging, given our 40 years of protecting wildlife habitat, including bear habitat.”

Ann Bryant, executive director of the Bear League, said her group’s activism is both civil and legal.

“We are a peaceful people,” Bryant said. “We don’t tolerate ill treatment of wildlife, but we sure don’t take our revenge out. We don’t tamper with traps. We don’t threaten people.”

Mark Smith, an Incline Village mining consultant who rallies bear lovers to trap sites on a website called the Lake Tahoe Wall of Shame, said citizen action is crucial.

“I think we have an obligation, as members of a democracy, when our government stops serving us, to take certain action, nonviolent action,” Smith said. But he added: “I think it’s unfortunate that fear is part of the equation. Fear is an inappropriate tool.”

At its simplest, the conflict is about how best to live with animals so charismatic that activists give them names – Jasper, Cloud, Rascal, Calvin, Butterscotch – but which also can be destructive and on rare occasions deadly.

“We are the intruders here,” said Ali Van Zee, a Bear League board member. “If you want to live in a beautiful area like this, let’s learn how to live with the animals that are here.”

Lackey, the bear biologist, believes in more hands-on management, saying animals that become too accustomed to people should be captured, relocated and – if they become too dangerous – killed.

“Black bears are normally very tolerant of human presence, but it only takes one time to ruin your day,” he said. “NDOW (the Nevada Department of Wildlife) errs on the side of caution.”

But the biggest problem may be human. In some cases, Tahoe residents no longer call authorities about problem bears because they’re more afraid of bear lovers.

“We’ve had residences broken into by bears where the occupants made the statement that the people were more dangerous than the bears,” said Tony Wasley, director of the Nevada wildlife department. “For that reason, they didn’t want a trap or, in one case, asked that the trap be removed.”

Bill Devine, an Incline Village trustee and a Washoe County sheriff’s sergeant, is concerned.

“It’s almost like a vigilante-type mentality,” he said. “If you see something like that and don’t report it, who’s to say the next house the bear breaks into doesn’t have some kids in it?”

Bear numbers booming

Ursus americanus, the American black bear, is the most far-flung bear on the continent and perhaps the most poorly named. While many are indeed as black as midnight, others are a painter’s palette of brown and tan – from caramel to chestnut, cinnamon to cappuccino.

They are the ultimate omnivore, content to dine on everything from pine nuts to pork chops, kokanee salmon to potato salad. Around Tahoe, they’re not just celebrated; they’re mourned. When a bear known as Charlie was captured and killed by authorities in Incline Village in 2011, activists held a candlelight vigil.

“They’re not just another animal,” said Smith, the pro-bear activist. “There is something special about bears. It’s hard to explain. The more I am with them, the closer I feel to them.”

Few people spend more time with bears than Lackey, the Nevada biologist. “They can be very human-like,” he said. “They are very persistent. They will figure things out.

“I’ve had bears open jars,” Lackey said. “I had a bear that drank a whole six-pack of beer. He bit a hole in the top of each can and drank every one. Then he went and rolled around on a trampoline.”

Bears numbers are booming. In California, the population is estimated at more than 30,000, up from 10,000 to 15,000 three decades ago. Some 200 to 300 animals are believed to inhabit the California side where lately they have stayed mostly out of trouble.

“This year has been relatively stable, definitely lower numbers than some past years for significant conflicts,” said Jason Holley, a supervising wildlife biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

They are thriving on the Nevada side, too, which is home to one of the highest densities of bears in North America, according to the Nevada wildlife department. Human-bear conflicts are on the upswing in Nevada, too, averaging around 250 per year, up from less than 100 in the late 1990s.

Most conflicts are tied to trash, and Incline Village – a well-heeled community of woodsy homes on the northeast shore of Lake Tahoe – is a hotspot.

“Monday through Friday are collection days,” said Smith, who is 56. “If you drive around, you’ll see tattered, raggedy plastic bins. You’ll see Glad Bags on the street waiting for pick-up.

“On any given week, there’ll be one neighborhood where a bear’s wandered in and he’s going door to door, ravaging those trash bags. I think that’s ludicrous.”

Incline Village trustees are weighing a proposal to make bearproof containers mandatory but took no action on it last month, disappointing wildlife officials.

“Dealing with trash is the only effective way to address nuisance bears,” said Wasley, the Nevada wildlife director. “It’s unfair for Incline Village to expect the department to address their bear issues when they are unwilling to manage their trash.”

A capital offense

When bears do get into trouble, bear lovers say, the Nevada wildlife department responds excessively, especially bear biologist Lackey.

“Carl Lackey is the ultimate bear serial killer,” said the Bear League’s Bryant. “He’s killed more bears than old snaggletooth hunters. He kills sometimes several a month.”

Lackey is a familiar target on the Bear League and Lake Tahoe Wall of Shame Facebook pages. “Carl is on a killing spree,” one person wrote. “Oh, please beat the crap out of this guy,” another added.

Not long ago, Ron Stiller, an Incline Village business consultant trying to defuse the tension, sat down to talk with Lackey. “I made him take his hat off to check for horns – and I didn’t find any,” Stiller said. “I checked his coffee. There was no bear blood in it.

“It’s always easy when you have a movement to have an enemy,” Stiller said. “They’ve made him the enemy. Carl’s a good guy. He’s a good husband, a good father.”

Stiller also has met with pro-bear activists.

“There is a time to protest and a time to lay off,” he said. “If you take it too far, you get polarization. Then what pays the ultimate price are the entities everybody is trying to protect: the bears.”

For his part, Lackey – who has a bachelor’s degree in wildlife management and has co-authored five peer-reviewed articles about bears – shrugs off the criticism.

“I’ve got some pretty thick skin,” he said. “I’ve got too many things on my plate to worry about things they’re saying, especially when they are lies.”

Since late 1996, Lackey has responded to more than 3,500 human-bear conflicts, handled bears more than 900 times and put down about 80.

“I’ve been very consistent when I kill a bear and when I don’t,” he said. “If I know I have the right bear and that bear is either breaking into homes or very aggressively seeking human food, it’s a dead bear.”

That rule was put to the test last month when a bear wandered into Incline Village and began sniffing around some vehicles, drawn by a doughnut on a dashboard.

Lackey set up his trap in a quiet driveway, out of sight of bear activists. Overnight, the door slammed shut. When Lackey arrived the next day, he had a job on his hands.

Inside was a surly, restless 160-pound male with no ear tags or other markings, meaning it hadn’t been captured before and likely was not habituated to people. And it was young, making it a good candidate for rehab. This bear would live.

After sedating the animal, Lackey knelt beside it and clipped tags on both ears. He drew a blood sample and stenciled a tattoo on the animal’s gum. He worked quickly and said very little. But a beige cap on his head bore a message: “Think! like a BEAR.”

A day later, on a rocky mountain road outside town, Lackey lifted the trap door. After hesitating for a moment, the bear leaped to the ground with two yelping dogs on its heels and the sharp bang-bang of two non-lethal shotgun rounds in its ears, headed for the rugged Carson Range.

The goal was to scare the bear, a process called aversive conditioning. “We’re trying to change their behavior, make them so they are not so comfortable around people,” Lackey said.

Let sleeping bears lie

Bear League activists argue that by releasing bears in mountain terrain, Lackey is only making them afraid of the wild. “He punishes them in the area where he wants them to supposedly stay,” said Bryant. “Carl does it wrong.”

She believes in conditioning bears when and where they get into trouble, saying that sends a more direct message.

“When a bear is where he shouldn’t be, tell him right then and there,” Bryant said. “Wave your arms and stomp your feet.” Once the animal has fled into the forest, “you stop and say, ‘Good bear.’”

Lackey is a fan of on-site conditioning, too, but said it’s often risky in congested settings. “The last thing I want to do is get a bear or my dogs run over by a car,” he said.

Since 1998, Bryant said, she has responded to more than 2,500 bear conflicts that have led to the deaths of just two bears. “I agreed they were incorrigible,” she said. “Prior to allowing them to be killed, I searched for other options.”

Bryant, 62, applies her tough-love with paintball gun, rubber buckshot and a fierce passion that has brought her frequent media coverage: She was the focus of an Animal Planet miniseries, “Blonde vs Bear,” in 2011 – and also sometimes stirs conflict with wardens, wildlife biologists and homeowners.

In 2010, one incident turned ugly on the California side after a home where a bear had been trapped was vandalized. As an El Dorado County sheriff’s deputy wrote in a report, blood-colored paint covered “the exterior walls, windows, the stone chimney, the slate porch, the Trex decking and stairs, the roof and the planters.”

The deputy contacted the Bear League. “Bryant was unaware of the vandalism (and) advised if she received any information ... she would let me know immediately,” he wrote in the report.

“We are accused of all kinds of things,” said Bryant, who majored in psychology and philosophy at Mankato State University in Minnesota. “People who don’t like bears don’t like us. We know that.

“Maybe I don’t just quietly sit back and say, ‘yes, sir, no, sir,’ ” Bryant said. “I will speak how I feel. But I am not a terrorist, and I don’t break the law.”

With blonde hair that spills over her shoulders, black sunglasses and black gloves, she is a well-recognized figure around Tahoe. Her group has about 1,500 members and 250 trained volunteers. “We have to be the voice for these animals,” she said.

Not long ago, she was called out to the scene of a potential human-bear conflict in Kings Beach on the California side, where a 250-pound bear lay napping behind a pizza joint.

Bryant walked to within a few yards of the animal and spoke to it. “You’re quite comfortable there, aren’t you?” she said.

The bear, dozing near a bag of garbage, didn’t seem to notice. A few moments later, it lifted its head and gazed at its human visitors. “It’s OK, doll,” said Van Zee, a Bear League board member who had accompanied Bryant. The bear went back to sleep.

The animal had shown up overnight, after breaking through a wooden fence.

“This bear’s mellow,” said Rick Buhler, owner of the pizza take-out and delivery business. “I’ve dealt with it for two years now. He doesn’t seem to be in any mood to harm anybody. I just don’t want him coming back.”

Bryant could have chased the animal off, but with a busy highway nearby, she chose to let a sleeping bear lie.

After the bear left that evening, a Bear League volunteer dumped Pine-Sol on his napping spot. Buhler patched up the fence and hasn’t seen the animal since.

A bear named Cloud

Black bears generally leave people alone, but not always. Since 1900, at least 63 people have been killed, most in Canada and Alaska, and none in California and Nevada. A recent study found 86 percent of those fatalities have occurred since 1960, as human and bear populations have grown.

Bryant contends the more habituated bears are around people, the safer they are likely to be. “Animals who grow up around our villages, especially here in Tahoe, are the least likely to harm a human,” shesaid.

But there was a close call this year in Incline Village. It happened when a young, light-colored bear that activists had named Cloud walked into a condo occupied by a disabled 92-year-old woman.

“Bears just don’t walk in out of the wild and break into homes,” said Lackey, the Nevada biologist. “If they had it named, that tells me it had been in that area long enough to become human-habituated.”

The woman escaped unharmed, but the condo did not. The bear tipped over a dresser, broke a window, tore up a couch and ripped up molding. In 2001, a similar break-in ended tragically for a 93-year-old New Mexico woman.

“The same scenario: an elderly lady, a conflict bear,” Lackey said. “She got killed.”

In Incline Village, the bear was still inside the woman’s condo when Lackey arrived at 12:35 a.m. There was no doubt about its fate. It was guilty of home invasion – a capital offense. After darting the animal with a sedative, Lackey shot it through the head with a .22.

“I didn’t become a biologist to kill bears,” Lackey said. “We do a lot of good for bears in Nevada, but we err on the side of caution when bears are in homes. Killing that bear was justified.”

Bear lovers were furious.

“We demand a new biologist,” one activist stated on the Lake Tahoe Wall of Shame’s Facebook page. “Cloud was a gentle, sweet bear. He was our ‘poster child.’”