EXCLUSIVE: Are Nevada officials hauling bears away for hunting?

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- It's bear hunting season and that's always controversial. This year, the debate is especially fierce in Lake Tahoe where animal activists are accusing the state of Nevada of trapping bears for hunting.

In the past five years, Nevada wildlife officials have caught and moved more than 20 bears out of the Lake Tahoe area into the desert. The Nevada Wildlife Department says it's got nothing to do with hunting, but its own data raises questions about the timing of the moves.

Video from the Nevada Department of Wildlife shows a bear being tranquilized after it was caught in a government trap on the east side of Lake Tahoe.

Wildlife officials were trying to catch a bear that had broken into a truck, but the owner said that was the wrong bear.

Even so, he was hauled 75 miles away to the high desert. The team uses rubber bullets and dogs to make the bear fear humans.

"We want their last experience with people to be a bad one," Carl Lackey said.

But some animal activists say moving a bear that's grown up in a lush lake environment to the desert is cruel.

"He doesn't know where the food is. He doesn't know where the water is. That's a crime against nature," Bear League spokesperson Ann Bryant said.

The activists believe the department is taking bears out of Tahoe so they can be hunted.

"Any place outside of the Tahoe Basin is the hunt zone," Bryant said.

Nevada hunters are only allowed to kill 20 bears during the fall season, but they've never taken that many.

That could be because most of the bears live around Lake Tahoe where Nevada does not allow hunting.

"It's not an easy hunt by any means. And a lot of these individuals are spending two and three weeks hunting before they get a bear," Lackey said.

Biologist Lackey runs Nevada's bear program. He says he's relocating suspected problem bears to keep people safe, and not for hunting.

"It's ludicrous and I think anybody with common sense can read through the lines there," Lackey said.

Lackey says no relocated Tahoe bear has been killed in the hunt.

"Translocation of bears to other suitable areas in Nevada has been in our conflict policy for over 20 years," Lackey said.

That may be so, but most bears are moved within the Lake Tahoe Basin. Lackey's own research raises questions about moving bears in 2004.

Lackey's study concluded: "Relocation of nuisance bears is not an effective management option" at Tahoe because most bears just cross the desert and come home.

After that study, the Nevada Wildlife Department records show Nevada stopped transferring Tahoe bears to the desert for seven years.

Then, when bear hunting became legal in 2011, the department started transferring bears again.

"It's not always successful, but that by no means means it can't be successful," Lackey said.

But not everyone agrees on what success with bears means. Take the case of a guy who lived in Incline Village for 10 years.

"It was a wonderful experience having this bear. Every afternoon in the summer he would come lumbering down the street," Incline Village resident Jane Rothman said.

Neighbors say the bear was trapped by mistake at an apartment complex where a different bear was seen causing trouble.

"I was just really upset. He'd never had any past history issues," Rothman said.

He was taken more than 100 miles away to the desert.

"We don't want them walking around during the day in broad daylight in downtown Incline," Lackey said.

Two observers were allowed to go along.

"He gave me a look like, what have I done? He wasn't aggressive at all. He was just confused and didn't deserve to be put out there," animal activist Patrick McLaughlin said.

Four months later, he was spotted by a research camera well south of Tahoe in California. The other bear we talked about earlier was tracked by satellite collar and also reported south of Tahoe.

The Nevada Wildlife Department calls those bears success stories because, so far they have not gone back home. But animal activists believe they should never have been moved out of the Tahoe area.

The fate of many other transferred bears may never be known. Activists want Nevada to crack down harder on residents who don't dispose of their garbage properly. They say that's the real cause of bear problems in Lake Tahoe.

Click here for information on the Bear League.

Click here for information about the Nevada Department of Wildlife.
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