by Dana Gentry, Nevada Current
STATELINE — The practice of setting bear traps in populated areas of Lake Tahoe for the purpose of obtaining DNA from the animals for use in identifying culprits of home break-ins is futile as a management tool, traumatic for the bears, and puts cubs at risk, say some animal experts.
“It’s extremely stressful to be trapped. The bears don’t understand that it’s only for a matter of hours or overnight. All they know is they’re trapped and panicking,” says Dr. Stephen Stringham, a bear ecologist who currently studies grizzlies in Alaska. Cubs who attempt to follow their mother into a trap can be killed by ‘guillotine-style’ trap doors, he says.
But Peter Tira of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife says the practice is not harmful to bears or cubs. He says lactating bears are trapped overnight at a maximum, and released without being “processed.”
Dr. Staci Baker, a Tahoe veterinarian, calls the practice “a crime against nature.” She says two cubs seen with their mother near her Tahoe Keys home are “frantically searching for their mom who disappeared. Cubs need to nurse every two to three hours, so overnight trapping does hurt them.”
Baker says tags attached to the bears’ ears can cause infection. Some bears have been known to mutilate their ears in an effort to remove the tags, she says.
“Occasionally, they can be problematic, but for the most part, that’s not the norm,” Tira says, adding the department recently caught a bear whose tag from 15 years ago was intact.
“It’s a pretty innovative bear management and research effort,” says Tira, adding the goals are multiple. First and foremost is helping the community curb “a number of highly publicized bear break-ins to homes over the past year and a lot of property damage.”
“We set bear traps, catch the bears, sedate them and do a full health evaluation. We collect hair samples, blood samples, DNA, and we record all that for a database so we’re able to identify bears that are causing problems later,” says Tira.
“Then we take the bear back to wild habitat nearby and release it and we haze it upon release,” Tira says. “And the goal there is to provide that negative human interaction for that bear.”
“So after they terrify the bears, they take them into the wild, where they want them to stay, and throw rocks at them to chase them away. Does that make any sense?” asks Baker.
Hazing, the practice of using air horns, paintball guns, and non-lethal rounds to repel bears, is employed by wildlife officials and property owners.
“This stems partially from the idea that bears have a natural fear of humans,” says Stringham. “So when a bear appears to be unafraid of humans, they say that is an unnatural behavior, which they call habituation.”
So-called habituated bears are either relocated to a remote area or killed. But Stringham says bruins have no innate fear of humans.
“They (wildlife officials) are not training animals. What they’re doing is a cowboy activity. They are being bullies to the bears,” says Stringham. “I spent my life working with bears. Grizzly bears are so calm. They’ll lay down five to ten feet away from me and nurse.”
“The reason bears come near people in the first place is that they are attracted by human food or they are driven away from other areas,” he says, adding the attraction to human food sources is especially strong when natural sources have been depleted, as they were in Tahoe wildfires last year.
Additionally, the shores of Lake Tahoe may be one of just a few water sources available to bears, especially during drought.
“Where else are they going to go? You’ve come in and you built your towns and dwellings on their dining table. Then you complain they’re coming to their own dining table to eat,” observes Stringham.
Hazing has a place in management if done properly, according to Stringham, but he sees no value in randomly trapping and collecting DNA in an attempt to identify and kill habituated bears.
“If bear A comes today and you get rid of bear A, bear B comes tomorrow. Sometimes though, if you leave bear A in place, and you haze it, and you keep doing this repeatedly, it will quit coming and other bears will not come in its place,” he says.
“Our interest is to help maintain a healthy bear population in the Lake Tahoe area,” says Tira. “To do that, those bears need to be wild. It’s in their best interest. Bears that live off garbage and human food become obese, their teeth rot. They get hit by cars.”
“DNA evidence collected through Trap-Tag-Haze efforts already has shown interesting family relatedness among bears displaying similar activity,” says a news release from California Fish and Wildlife. “In other words, mother bears are likely teaching negative and nuisance behaviors to their offspring.”
Stringham, Baker, and others suggest the so-called negative and nuisance behaviors are bears doing what comes naturally. The onus for ensuring the animals don’t have access to garbage and human food should be on humans.
“We need to focus on solving this problem at the source, by having rigorous controls on trash and other food subsidies for bears in the Tahoe Basin,” says Patrick Donnelly of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Until the trash problem, including from short term rentals, is properly dealt with, these programs are just bandaids.”
Wildlife officials have the ability to impose legal sanctions on individuals who fail to secure their trash or property, but don’t issue them.
“Namely, there’s not a lot of interest by a district attorney to really prosecute people for that kind of thing,” says Tira. Instead, wildlife officials focus on education, especially messaging directed at the throngs of tourists who are unlikely to recognize the potentially deadly consequences of carelessly discarding a half-eaten burger. “There’s a constant need for education outreach so bears and people can safely coexist in Lake Tahoe.”
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