Lake Tahoe visitors warned: Stay away from bears at Taylor Creek

Visitors eager to snap pictures of black bears eating salmon are creating unsafe conditions at Lake Tahoe’s Taylor Creek Visitor Center, prompting a warning from the U.S. Forest Service.

The annual Kokanee salmon run at the visitor center has become a popular tourist spectacle – especially since bears began feeding on the salmon several years ago. The landlocked fish, similar to sockeye salmon, learned to spawn in Taylor Creek after being introduced to Lake Tahoe in 1944.

A Forest Service visitor center on the creek allows people to get up close to observe the spawning run each October. It is often the busiest time of year at the visitor center, drawing tens of thousands of people eager to see the large salmon.

In the last few years, native black bears discovered the salmon as a reliable food source and began to concentrate along the creek during the fall spawning run. This year, as never before, people are getting too close to the bears in an attempt to snap photos of the spectacle.

Black bears are not normally aggressive, but bears may attack people if they feel cornered or threatened. Lisa Herron, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, said there was a report last week that one person was charged by a bear.

“We’ve had reports of mobs of people, who, once they see the bear, they rush up to it and try to get a picture or video,” Herron said. “That’s the problem. Bears are wild, unpredictable animals. They don’t look like they can move very fast, but they actually can.”

Rangers are trying to prevent conflicts. But the creek covers a large area and with hundreds of visitors on hand, all the activity is difficult to monitor. In some cases, visitors have ignored instructions to keep their distance.

“We’ve had reports, also, of people getting off the trails to look for the bears. And that’s really dangerous as well. If you surprise a bear, that could be very bad,” Herron said.

The salmon run is expected to end in a few days, but the Forest Service warns it may have to close the visitor center if people don’t change their behavior.

She advises people to stay on marked trails and not to approach bears. And she reminds visitors that conflicts could be bad for bears, too: Any bear that attacks people is likely to be euthanized.

“This is the first year that it’s really become a safety issue,” she said. “Everybody’s got a phone nowadays that takes pictures and video. With social media, things are so readily shared. I don’t know if that’s driving it, but it seems that way.”

Call The Bee’s Matt Weiser at (916) 321-1264. Follow him on Twitter @matt_weiser.