Warm winter weather 'confusing' for Tahoe bears

February 10, 2012 7:00:45 PM PST
This year's weird winter weather is creating confusion for Lake Tahoe's bears. Their natural behavior and food supply are tied to the seasons, so all of this warm, dry weather when it should be cold and wet is bad news for bears.

It may be bad news for people too.

When Ann Bryant takes a winter walk near Lake Tahoe, she does not expect to see any bears. They should be hibernating, but this year, things are just out of whack."We had some that went to bed and then got back up when the weather warmed back up," she explained.

Bryant runs "The Bear League," a network of 200 volunteers who help people and bears share the Tahoe Basin peacefully. The League has captured video showing bears out and about when they should be tucked in their dens. The odd weather swings this winter follow a summer that was one of the best ever for Tahoe's bears. That is "best" as in "very few confrontations with people."

Bryant credits last year's heavy snow which created a lot of natural food. "As soon as the snow started melting and the water started to flow, the green up occurred. I was just like someone flipped a switch and the bears went back in the forest, and it was the quietest summer we've ever had on record," she said.

During a bad summer, like the drought of 2007, The Bear League gets as many as 150 calls a day from people reporting bears looking for food near homes or businesses. Last summer though, they only got 10 to 15 calls a day. "I thought something happened to all of them. We actually went out looking for the bears because we thought, 'Are they OK?' and indeed, they were," Bryant recalled. "They had good weight on them. Their coats were gorgeous and they totally behaved. They just prefer to eat natural forage when it's available."

However, if we do not get more snow soon, this summer could be rough for bears. "There won't be any food for them in the forest and they will all be knocking on our doors and trying to get in our refrigerators," Bryant explained. Hungry bears are smart and determined. They will raid bird feeders, break through windows and doors, and cause serious property damage, but they are not likely to hurt a person. "People think they're dangerous. They're not. No one's ever been killed by a black bear in all of history, anywhere in California or Nevada, ever," she said.

Although, plenty of bears have been killed by wildlife officials who determine they are a nuisance. For almost 15 years, The Bear League has worked to prevent that by teaching people how to handle garbage properly and bear-proof their homes. They also provide what you might call training for bears, scaring them away from urban areas by shooting guns that make noise but do not kill.

Bryant believes you can get a bear to change its habits, but she is still worried that a dry winter will make it hard for them to stay out of trouble. "We consider these our animals that we are responsible for and we appreciate, and we want them alive," she told ABC7.

The unseasonably warm weather could also delay mother bears giving birth and that is dangerous because instead of coming out of their dens in early spring, the cubs come out in summer, which is the same time tourists, visitors, and traffic begin to pick up again.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney


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