Tahoe bears hibernate under houses

Every year bears hibernate under houses all around Lake Tahoe.
January 30, 2014 7:38:13 PM PST
You might call it a reverse Goldilocks story, but this is not a fairy tale. Every year bears hibernate under houses all around Lake Tahoe. The bears actually pose very little threat, if they are handled correctly, according to Ann Bryant, executive director of the Bear League. Bryant guesses there are "upwards of 100 bears every winter under homes and cabins in Tahoe."

The Bear League is a non-profit group that helps bears and people learn to co-exist. The more we encroach on bear territory, the more Bryant believes we have to learn how to share habitat. The most serious conflicts usually happen in summer when people leave food where bears can get it. In winter, the issue is different, bears are looking for places to hibernate.

Residents are urged to close up access to any part of their homes, but many do not. Bryant said quite a few bears "have discovered underneath people's homes in their crawl spaces, it's just perfect."

Many Tahoe homes are empty in winter and people often don't even know a bear is there. But sometimes it is obvious. Bryant said people hear the bears. "They will roll around and they will thump or they will snore."

That's when people call the Bear League's 24-hour hotline. Trained volunteers will come to your house to help you handle the bear safely and humanely. Most homeowners want the bear out. So after careful preparation, the bear is evicted. The bear is usually scared out from under the house with loud noise. Then the openings are sealed up so the bear can't come back.

The procedure can be hard on a hibernating bear that is suddenly homeless. "A lot of people feel really bad that it was their fault that the bear is in there. They left the trap door open or whatever, they forgot," Bryant said.

So some people will let the bear stay with the help of expert volunteers. The Bear League team will examine the area under the house to make sure the bear can't damage anything or get into the house itself. The location of the houses and names of the owners are kept secret to protect both the bear and the people, so we were not able to talk with any of the homeowners.

The Bear League checks on the bears all winter and they let an ABC7 News producer go along. Bryant demonstrated how she quietly crawls under the house "just for a very short time. Just shine the light in there, make sure he's OK. Make sure he's still in the same place, he doesn't seem to be irritated." On this house check, the 600 pound male bear did wake up and see Bryant. But he was very groggy and Bryant said he will go right back to sleep.

Bryant has done this kind of thing hundreds of times. She feels safe, but cautions she is an expert. "I know what I am doing, but for regular citizens to try to get that close to a bear would be foolish."

A couple of years ago, Bryant helped a family that allowed a mother bear to stay under their home and give birth to a cub. The family was actually home when the cub was born. "It was right underneath their parlor where they would watch television and they heard him cry," Bryant said. The mother bear kept her cub under the house until he was a couple of months old then disappeared up into the forest.

"In all these hundreds of bears that have slept under homes for months at a time, we've never had a case of anybody being hurt, no dogs being hurt, no neighbors being hurt," Bryant said. But whether you want to chase the bear out or let him stay, it is critical you call an expert for help.

Under California law, it is legal to let a bear hibernate under your house on private property. But it is absolutely illegal to feed bears or lure them to your property.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney

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