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Living in bear country

by Linda Hiller

It’s that time again – “talkin’ about bear” season.

This time it’s not Genoa or Dresslerville like the two most recent times – it’s south of town in the Valley and Pine Valley areas between Gardnerville and Topaz Lake.

“I don’t know whether this is considered to be newsworthy or not, but something – I don’t know if it was a bear or what – came through our window, broke the screen and tore out our trash compactor,” a caller to The Record-Courier reported early July 24. “The trash is all over the floor this morning, and I looked through the house and I didn’t see the animal – it must have gone out the same way it came in. I live out here on Bodie Road in the Spring Valley area.”

Bad news – bears and humans meeting at the “urban interface” again. Worse yet, this bear crossed a very big line when it chose to go into a home and avail itself of fresh fruit.

“It think it smelled the cantaloupe we had for breakfast, because it pulled the compactor out of the wall and dumped it,” said homeowner Margaret Becker, 71. “Then, it took and ate all the bananas we had on the counter, peels and all.”

Her husband, Irv, 76, said he was surprised the bear didn’t do more damage.

“It didn’t even go into the pantry, which is right there – it could have gone in there for food,” he said. “I got up at 4:30 (Saturday morning), because we were getting ready to go to Chicago, and here was the big, heavy trash compactor pulled out of the wall and on the floor, on its side, with all the trash lying there. I woke my wife up to see if she knew what had happened, and then I saw a wastebasket on its side and remembered that my neighbor had told me they’d had a bear get into their garbage the day before, so I grabbed my shotgun and went from room to room, but didn’t see anything.”

The Beckers have lived in their Spring Valley home for six years and had no encounters with bears up until sometime between 11:30 p.m. July 23, when Margaret went to bed, and 4:30 a.m. July 24, when Irv discovered the damaged compactor.

The bear had entered through an open, screened window on the back porch of their one-story house, apparently stepping over a yellow chair which sits under the window, both on the way in and on the way out of the house.

“It did seem to go all around looking for something, because we did have a footprint on the rug, but it stepped over that yellow chair,” Becker said. “It couldn’t have been too big, because the window it came through is about three feet wide. What concerns me is the fact that we had our bedroom door open, though, and neither of us heard a thing.”

Carl Lackey, a biologist with the Nevada Division of Wildlife, who has handled many bear calls for the Carson Valley, said Spring Valley is “smack dab in the middle of bear habitat.”

He was notified of the Spring Valley Black Bear mid-week and set up a live trap for it on Spring Valley Road Thursday morning.

“These bears get pushed around,” he said. “Once they get hooked on eating garbage – which is how they usually start – it is hard to get them to go back into the wild to eat, even though there’s plenty of wild food like plants, berries, grass, shrubs, insects, carrion and small mammals out there right now.”

Lackey said his office frequently gets requests from people to relocate bears moving into human habitat.

“People move into the heart of bear country, and then want us to relocate the bears,” he said. “You don’t move to the ocean and complain about the saltwater. There are ways to live among the bears, and it starts with using bear-proof garbage cans. On the California side of Lake Tahoe, it is required by county ordinance that people use these bear-proof containers. If we could get that requirement everywhere in bear country, we’d be way ahead of the game.”

Lackey said NDOW is involved with the University of Nevada, Reno in a four-year study of large carnivores, including bears and cougars, and how they interact at the “urban interface.” UNR doctoral candidate Jon Beckmann is conducting field studies to earn his degree. Collaring bears has been one of the endeavors of the project, and Lackey said one collared bear was released 55 miles from its Lake home and is quickly finding its way back home.

“We know that relocating doesn’t work in the long run, because they seem to come right back,” Lackey said. “What we try to concentrate on is the aversion therapy and getting them away from humans and back into the wild.”

Lackey said a wild bear rarely makes a leap right into being a garbage bear.

“It is part learned behavior, and then it becomes habit,” he said. “Once they get the taste for human food, it’s tough to get them to stop. Even if we successfully move them, or even if we have to euthanize a bear – it’s only a matter of time before more bears come in if they’re still allowed access to garbage.”

The Beckers have been careful about their garbage, keeping it locked in the garage – never outside. But if just one person living around them has garbage stored outside, it starts the momentum that eventually can lead to incidents such as their bear break-in Saturday morning, Lackey said.

While Lackey says it is possible to live in harmony with bears, he is hesitant because, as he says, black bears can be predatory and dangerous.

“This is the part that scares me,” he said. “I would rather do almost anything than have to put down a bear, but I would also much rather deal with putting down a bear occasionally than have to deal with a human attack.”

For now, the Beckers sleep with one eye open and windows closed. Upon their return from Chicago Wednesday, Irv noticed that the screen he had replaced Saturday morning had been torn off again and there was a large smudge – a noseprint? – on the window.

“It bothered me that the bear came back and knew exactly where it went in the time before,” he said. “We have the windows all locked up at night and will put a phone in the bedroom, I guess.”

Lackey said bear captures and releases have been largely successful the last three years he’s been on the job.

“We’ve had to put down less than 10 percent of the bears, which I count as a successful program,” he said. “The main thing is, however, not to get them started eating garbage and we need people to help us with that.”

Lackey said anyone with threats from bears – not just sightings – should call his Fallon office at (775) 423-3171. Information on two sources for bear-proof garbage cans can also be obtained at that number.

BEAR BOX:

If you encounter a bear:

Don’t run. Make eye contact and try to be “big” by waving your arms and yelling. Put children on your shoulders.

Never feed or approach.

If it attacks, fight back with anything – rocks, sticks, pepper spray. Warning signs of attack are: ears laid back, sidelong glances, foot-stomping and jaw-smacking.

If you live in bear habitat:

Watch children closely.

Make noise.

Use ammonia around garbage. Don’t put aromatic foods in can. Seal garbage in plastic.

Wait until morning to put garbage out for collection.

Use bear-proof containers or lockable dumpsters.

Keep pet food secluded.

Use electrical fencing or loud dogs.

Don’t feed any wildlife.