Lake Tahoe-Truckee bear activity driven by severe drought
March 29, 2016
INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — Three black bears were hit and killed by vehicles in Nevada back in 2011, according to statistics provided by state wildlife officials.
A year later, the number tripled to nine. Three years later, the tally swelled to 18.
And in 2015, last year, there were 21 such bear deaths.
The reason for the spike: the severe drought.
"It's an unfortunate measuring stick," Chris Healy, public information officer for Nevada Department of Wildlife, said this week, "but it does kind of tell you just how far and wide the bears have to go to find food when the drought comes into play."
In other words, the water shortage that has gripped Nevada and the West for more than four years has stymied the growth of available wild foods — such as nuts, grasses, roots and berries — that sprout in upper regions of the Sierra Nevada, where black bears call home.
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When these sources of natural foods are not prevalent, the area's black bears sniff around until their scrounging leads them down the mountains and into communities.
Unfortunately, some bears that cross roadways end up getting hit and killed by cars.
Healy said access to human garbage is the biggest problem with these bears because they not only become conditioned to heaps of easy calories, but also more comfortable living near humans.
"The bears will seek out the path of least resistance in searching for food," Healy said. "If that source comes easily from people not properly taking care of their trash, the bears will just go out and take that source of food because it's easy to find.
"Every time a bear is successful in getting food from a garbage or a dumpster, they're going to return to that place."
'MULTI-GENERATIONAL GARBAGE BEARS'
This winter, one such bear was foraging in an Incline Village neighborhood so frequently that NDOW placed a bear trap last week at the request of residents living in the area.
The 450-pound bruin, which had not been handled before by NDOW, was captured Monday and released Tuesday in Nye Canyon, located southeast of Wellington, Nev., Healy said.
"If you have a male bear that's 450 pounds this time of year, that bear is a garbage bear," Healy said. "The only way to save this particular bear's life is to put him in a more wild area and hope he finds a good source of food up there.
"If he comes back and is found breaking into people's homes, we're obviously not going to be able to keep him alive."
According to NDOW, the department is unsure what drove the bear to that particular area of town.
"The key thing, I was told by our biologist they have bear proof garbage totes at this place (where the bear was searching for food)," Healy said. "The problem is, where we set the trap may not have been because of the tenants of that area; it could have been other people not managing their garbage in the vicinity."
Last year, 44 percent of all bear calls in Nevada came from Washoe County, primarily Incline Village, according to NDOW, which handled a total of 114 bears throughout the state during in 2015.
"This issue is not going away," Healy said. "We have multi-generational garbage bears now."
Healy said the best thing those living in bear country can do is store their garbage in metal bear-proof containers called "bear boxes."
Drought effects on bears in Truckee-Tahoe
While bear calls and incidents in 2015 — and in recent years have seen an uptick on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe — in California, the drought has not triggered an increase in bear activity in the Tahoe-Truckee region, according to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
"For Tahoe and Truckee, we haven't seen any long-lasting effects," said Jason Holley, supervising wildlife biologist for CDFW. "We haven't been experiencing the same trends (as Nevada)."
Holley said the reason is the difference in habitat between the Nevada and California sides of Lake Tahoe.
"We get a lot more precipitation on our side of Tahoe," he added.
Holley noted over the last four years, there have been instances of bears wandering farther for food. However, "we don't know if that's attributed to the drought or not, because we have that even in non-drought years," he said.
less bear activity in 2016?
While the Northern Sierra has experienced a significantly wetter winter this year, Healy said it's too early to predict if that will decrease bear activity in 2016.
"We could go into a summer where it turns 100 degrees and never cools down and we don't get any moisture," Healy said. "Obviously the more moisture is better. So logic says it could be a slower year (with bear handlings), but the year has yet to unfold."
Additionally, Healy said the strength of the apple crop in the foothill areas would play a role in bear activity.
Last year, the apple crop was almost non-existent due to a freeze when the apples were blooming, Healy said.
"Those are the kinds of factors that we really can't predict," he said. "A lot of people have apple trees in the foothill areas, all the way to Washoe County. If you have a lot of apples in those urban areas it makes for a busy year."
Healy said during dry winters, the NDOW is already handling bears in February, if not earlier.
The aforementioned bear NDOW captured in Incline Village is the first the department has handled this year.