Tahoe bears are breaking into homes with people inside. Should the animals be killed?

It was October, and most of the vacation homes on this part of Lake Tahoe were empty. Bob Chaplin, 82, was living alone on a quiet street.

And he was getting nervous.

Bears had been breaking into his neighbors’ houses. Shuttered windows and locked doors did little to slow them down on their quest for whatever food remained in pantries or refrigerators. In the mornings, Chaplin wandered the streets and found evidence of the bears’ burglaries – broken glass, ruined furniture and homes strewn with bear feces and urine.

A security camera in the kitchen of one of his neighbors’ vacation homes captured footage of six bears ransacking the place over the course of a night. In that home, and in at least four others, a bear had turned on the stovetop as it brushed against it. In another home, a bear had broken a gas line.

Then, one morning in November, Chaplin was jolted out of bed at 2 a.m. by the sound of a motion-activated alarm he’d set on his kitchen counter. Bears were in his house. Three cubs had pushed in through a window. Their mother’s head was poking through, close enough that Chaplin could see a plastic yellow tag dangling from her ear.

“I screamed like hell,” Chaplin said. The bears crawled back outside.

By the time winter rolled around and the bears started their hibernation, at least 14 homes in Homewood had been ransacked. Bears had done thousands of dollars in damage.

The Lake Tahoe region along the California-Nevada border has long drawn bears from the Sierra wilderness to the bounty of calorie-rich meals found in the trash and unattended food brought by tourists seeking high mountain vistas and pristine blue waters.

In the past several years, though, wildlife biologists in both states say they’ve been noticing a troubling trend: A growing number of bears have transitioned from dumpster divers to expert burglars.

The home invasions have coincided with Tahoe’s residential neighborhoods and resorts doing a better job of locking up garbage in bear-proof bins.

The trash may be harder to find, but the bears still crave people food, and to get it, they’re willing to break into homes, increasingly with people inside, biologists say.

Mother bears appear to be teaching their cubs the burglary skills, ensuring the break ins will continue year after year.

“The ease (with which) they can get in ... shows that it’s a learned pattern, and it’s taught generationally,” said Jack Robb, deputy director of the Nevada Department of Wildlife. “They’ve got it figured out.”

Property damage isn’t the only risk.

One night this August on California’s side of the border, a Tahoe City man woke to a commotion downstairs in his cabin. He climbed down the ladder from the loft and came face to face with a bear.

“The bear stood up on its hind legs and swiped the victim across the top of his head,” according to a Department of Fish and Wildlife incident report, which doesn’t identify him.

The man stumbled outside, grabbed a chair and went back inside to try to push the bear out the front door. The bear eventually left, but not before nearly disemboweling him. In total, he needed 32 staples – 12 in his head and 20 in his stomach.

The bear never was captured. It could still be in the area.

‘Butterscotch’ and ‘Rascal’

Doing anything about bear break-ins in the Tahoe Basin is hardly a simple task. Here, bear lovers give the animals that sometimes saunter through towns in broad daylight names like Little Joe, Sunny, Butterscotch, Jasper, Cloud and Rascal. Bear activists have been known to hold vigils when they die, and they furiously lash out against those who kill one.

Government trappers have taken to hanging security cameras around their large culvert-like cage traps, designed to catch the bears alive to be killed later if necessary. Over the years, traps have been moved, vandalized or slathered with chemicals the bears don’t like. Two women, a mother and daughter, were captured on one such camera in 2013 as they tampered with a trap set in Incline Village. They were convicted in Nevada the next year.

A black bear, with a stash of garbage he collected, hangs out behind a pine tree in Kings Beach in 2013. Randy Pench rpench@sacbee.com

Chaplin and others in Homewood say that if they were to allow a local government bear trapper on their properties, they’d be harassed at home or at their businesses. Death threats and vandalism are real risks, they say.

Bear advocates say people and bears can – and largely do – coexist, and no bear should have to die because humans are irresponsibly luring them into trouble. They say far too many residents leave food and trash within easy reach. Their solution is educating people to hide their food and trash from the bears’ powerful noses. They suggest people better secure their homes, including installing expensive electrical wiring systems to zap away bears, if need be.

“The rules in the eyes and the mind of a bear are, ‘If I can smell it, and I can get at it, it’s mine,’” said Ann Bryant, the executive director of Tahoe’s non-profit Bear League.

Just about everyone agrees that moving problem bears out of the area usually doesn’t solve the problem. Biologists in both California and neighboring Nevada have grown reluctant to trap bears and haul them somewhere else, saying animals conditioned to crave people food will just become some other community’s problem. Bears released into faraway wilderness areas also have been known to make weeks-long journeys to get back to Tahoe and the human food they crave.

Biologists have tried chasing problem bears with dogs and shooting them with rubber bullets. The idea is that it might condition the bears into associating humans and their food with fear and pain so they’ll stay away. It seems to work best with younger bears just discovering people food. Biologists say the older bears who’ve been eating it for years aren’t fazed for long.

Black bears are not endangered in California and Nevada, and their numbers appear to be expanding in both states. Tahoe’s bear population, estimated at between 300 and 500 animals, is considered stable. Biologists say the abundance of human food has made the population denser than it would naturally be. A 2002 study said Nevada’s side of Tahoe had the second highest density of black bears in North America.

State biologists say killing the worst offenders won’t hurt the overall bear population of the region, but sport hunting is impractical or illegal in the populated areas where the bears are causing problems. That leaves it up to the state wildlife agencies to decide when and how to kill a nuisance bear.

Any state-sanctioned bear killing – even of bears proven to have been habitually breaking into locked or occupied homes through ear-tagging programs, radio collars or DNA evidence – infuriates Tahoe’s well-funded and well-organized groups of bear advocates, who defend the animals with a righteous, evangelical zeal.

Chaplin and other residents blame Bryant of the Bear League for organizing harassment campaigns against homeowners if they cause a bear’s demise. She adamantly denies any harassment is her doing, through she doesn’t dispute it happens.

She lives a couple of miles up the road from Chaplin’s Homewood neighborhood with a trio of loveable, snuffling bulldogs and a friendly pet porcupine named Maude that has its own Facebook page.

Bryant, a wildlife rehabilitator, raised Maude after her mother died. She’s able to carry the prickly, toddler-size rodent around without getting jabbed by its quills.

Ann Bryant 2.jpg
Ann Bryant, executive director of the Bear League, holds her porcupine Maude at her home in Homewood. Ryan Sabalow rsabalow@sacbee.com

Bryant, the star of the 2011 Animal Planet miniseries “Blonde vs. Bear,” and her volunteers see themselves as citizen animal control officers, tasked with protecting bears that wander their neighborhoods looking for unlocked trash cans, pet food, bird feeders and unattended ice chests.

The Bear League has around 1,800 members and 278 trained volunteers who respond to bear calls. They offer residents and tourists advice on how to keep bears from breaking in, and they’ll shoo away bears from homes upon request.

In at least one episode of “Blonde vs Bear,” Bryant fires a shotgun loaded with non-lethal rubber rounds at a bear that had been chased up a tree.

“Everybody calls us,” Bryant said last month, wearing her trademark sunglasses and fingerless gloves. As she spoke, Maude wandered around the carpet, her quills not poking the bumbling bulldogs or the pant legs of a Sacramento Bee reporter sitting on the couch. “Most people want our help.”

Bryant speaks with pride of how it was because of her group that it’s now much more difficult for a California resident to kill a bear, through what are known as depredation permits issued by the state.

“It used to be that if a bear walked through your yard, and you didn’t like it, and he bent over a daisy in your garden you could call and ask for a depredation permit,” she said.

Bryant said all she does is tell the truth about bears – that people “are luring them in by being irresponsible and then causing their death” and others are “putting a notch on their belt for each bear they can kill.”

“I’m here on this earth for a reason, and my reason is I look after the bears,” she said. “I try to be their voice, and I try to advocate for them so that they at least have a chance. People who don’t like bears, people who are afraid of them for whatever reason or who see them just simply as a bother … they don’t appreciate what I do. It doesn’t mean I’m going to stop.”

Going to ‘war’

Some locals say Bryant, her fellow bear advocates and their thousands of social media followers take their unsanctioned role as Tahoe’s bear protectors way too far.

They accuse Bryant and her allies of leading brutal harassment campaigns against homeowners and the local wildlife officials who kill problem bears – a charge Bryant and her fellow bear advocates deny.

In years past, homes whose owners had killed bears were smeared with blood red paint. Bryant said several years ago, one homeowner had a mother bear and her cubs shot and killed after a break in. A few days later, he discovered that someone had broken into his home and trashed the place. Bryant insists she had nothing to do with it.

Chaplin, who has lived in Tahoe for decades, said he has lived around Bryant long enough to know what would have happened if he tried to get a permit to kill the family of bears he found in his kitchen. (He said he doesn’t want them killed – just moved.)

“We have to sign a paper that they can put the (bear trap) on the lot here, and then we get in trouble,” he said. “Ann gets on the telephone and she starts calling all her people and they start calling me.”

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Bryant called Chaplin a “nutcase” who was “too wimpy” to kill a bear. After her interview with The Bee, she sent the newspaper an email in which she threatened to sue him for spreading slanderous gossip about her and her organization. She insisted harassment is not her style.

“I don’t allow my people to do that,” Bryant said. “My volunteers and my members know better than to do any such thing.”

Nonetheless, Bryant said it wouldn’t have ended well for Chaplin if he’d tried to have the bears killed.

“I wouldn’t do anything, but the neighbors around that area would,” Bryant said. “People that live in Tahoe are very protective. … He probably would have been run out of town. There’s been many people run out of town. People have been run out of town since before I even moved here. I still get blamed for it.”

The harassment allegations against Bryant and her allies have spilled into court on at least two occasions.

Last year, Carl Lackey, a Nevada state wildlife biologist, sued Bryant and two other bear advocates, alleging they damaged his reputation and slandered him in a years-long harassment campaign on their social media accounts. His suit describes their attacks as a “vicious and calculated effort to damage his reputation and jeopardize his employment.”

Bear advocates have accused Lackey of needlessly slaughtering bears over the years after break ins and other encounters he deemed unsafe. Lately, they accuse him of accepting bribes from hunters to trap and move the animals from the populated areas around Tahoe into zones recently opened to hunting. The Nevada Department of Wildlife says the claims are baseless. The agency insists that biologists kill just a few bears each year – six on average – and only because of safety concerns. Lackey declined to comment through his attorney and the Nevada wildlife agency.

Bryant said she’s forbidden from talking about Lackey as part of a recent confidential settlement, but in past interviews she made clear her disdain for the biologist.

“Carl Lackey is the ultimate bear serial killer,” Bryant told The Sacramento Bee in 2013. “He’s killed more bears than old snaggletooth hunters. He kills sometimes several a month.”

Carl Lackey, a bear biologist with the Nevada Department of Wildlife, in 2013 pulls a sedated bear from a culvert trap in Incline Village, to begin processing it for relocation. The bear was spotted the day before looking for food near vehicles. Tom Knudson

In a separate case that has since been settled, Incline Village, Nev. couple Richard and Adrienne Evans alleged Bryant and the Bear League targeted them for harassment in 2013. A bear they’d seen on their porch and in their front stairwell broke into their car. Fearing for the safety of her 6-year-old stepson, Adrienne Evans called the Nevada wildlife agency, which placed a trap on her property. The trapper eventually killed the 263-pound animal, which had a tag in its ear, because it had been causing trouble before.

In a written ruling, Washoe County judge Lidia Stiglich wrote that after someone spotted the trap, the Bear League posted Evans’ home address and a photo of her husband’s work truck. Facebook commenters responded by identifying Evans’ employer, Carson High School, and the sponsors that support her competitive mountain biking races.

Stiglich wrote that Bryant said at one point she was going to “war” to save the bear, and the Bear League’s Facebook page said, “We were getting nowhere by being nice.”

The harassment got so bad that the police at Adrienne Evans’ school got involved because she was terrified for her and her family’s safety, Stiglich wrote.

“As a result of this posting by the Bear League, Ms. Evans was called an ‘assassin’ more times than are feasible to count,” the judge wrote.

Lately, the Bear League appears to have toned it down on its Facebook page. Bryant told The Bee last month she only posts facts on social media to foster discussions about keeping bears safe. She said the Bear League deletes any comment that calls for violence or criminal behavior or that post residents’ personal information.

“Anything we consider beyond the scope of just conversation, getting the facts out, listening to civilized opinions, is removed,” she said.

In response to complaints that people were harassed after reporting wildlife problems, the Nevada legislature in 2016 passed a law that forbids the state from releasing any information that could used to identify the person making the reports.

“It’s basically a witness protection program,” said Robb, the deputy director of the Nevada Department of Wildlife.

‘They’re impotent’

Had Homewood been on Nevada’s side of the border, the family of bears that Chaplin encountered in his home that November morning likely would have met a death sentence.

Nevada wildlife officials have broad discretion to kill bears, and they have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to the animals breaking into homes when people are inside.

“If we have a bear that’s entered an occupied home, they show they’ve gone past our level of comfort,” Robb said. “They’ve shown they pose a threat to humans.”

It’s a different story in California, where the wildlife agency’s policy is to kill bears if they attack someone. Otherwise, state wildlife officials are deeply reluctant to kill a problem bear.

Wildlife officials know all too well the PR nightmare they’d have on their hands in a state where animal rights groups hold substantially more sway than in the much more politically conservative Nevada.

“The public reaction to the department going in and killing a (mother bear) and two cubs, you can imagine what that’s like,” said Steve Torres, a Department of Fish and Wildlife supervisor who oversees the agency’s wildlife conflict programs.

That’s not to say Torres’ agency wouldn’t allows those bears to be killed. It just punts the controversial decision to homeowners such as Chaplin. A homeowner can request a depredation permit if state officials deem a resident has taken appropriate steps to keep bears away, such as bear-proofing trash.

Trappers working for El Dorado or Placer counties’ agricultural departments will set a trap on their behalf free of charge.

California’s wildlife agency mandates that the large traps have to be placed on the permit owners’ property – where they are visible to anyone who sees one parked on a small lot such as the ones in Homewood.

This practice frustrates residents such as Gretchen Eberle, one of Chaplin’s neighbors from South San Francisco whose small vacation home was broken into this fall.

Her kitchen flooded when the bears turned on the sink. The water spilled into the adjacent electric stove, which the bears also turned on. Luckily, Eberle said the breaker triggered, shutting off the electricity before it started a fire.

She said Bryant and the Bear League has the wildlife agency “by the cajones.”

“They’re impotent; they have no power,” she said. “They put (killing a bear) all on one person. So if I file a depredation permit, now I’m the bad guy. They aren’t going to help me. They aren’t going to say, ‘This is a community issue. It could have burnt down the forest. You could have killed old people that are stuck in their house.’ They don’t do that. They just say, ‘It’s not our problem.’”

Torres, the state wildlife official, doesn’t describe it quite that way, but he admits the Bear League has been allowed to fill a void in Tahoe that California’s wildlife agency can’t.

Bear League executive director Ann Bryant stands ready with her paintball gun (she uses chalk balls instead of paint balls) should she need to scare a black bear which hangs out in the safety of a pine tree and bushes behind a pizza restaurant in Kings Beach, Calif. on Tuesday, September 24, 2013. Randy Pench rpench@sacbee.com

Torres said his agency doesn’t have enough staff and resources to handle the growing numbers of wildlife conflicts across California’s vast landscape – let alone to study the bear problem in Tahoe and find solutions.

“In the absence of resources up there and alternatives, the absence of being able to play a stronger role in leadership,” he said, “then you get sometimes groups emerge.”

“We’re kind of in a difficult situation because if the homeowners don’t request a depredation permit, then our options are limited,” he said. “There’s a lot of bears running around in there, and we can’t monitor all of them.”

Eberle said no one wants to see the bears killed. She would prefer biologists use birth control to keep the worse offenders from breeding and spreading their home break-in skills to the next generation.

But that’s not happening, so she reluctantly asked the state for a depredation permit.

“There were people who had far more damage than I did,” she said, “But the minute I got the permit, everyone went underground.” She said they were scared of the blow back from the Bear League.

In the end, Eberle let the permit expire. She never called the county’s trapper because it was a logistical pain to coordinate with him from the Bay Area. She also figured she waited too long, and the bears went into hibernation.

Chaplin, who awoke to the bears in his kitchen, said he knows where the family ended up sleeping away the winter: In the crawl space below one of his neighbors’ houses. He has his bear alarm back out and on his kitchen counter. He knows when they wake up, they’ll be famished after their long slumber.

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow. The Bee’s Dale Kasler contributed to this story.

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