Bear population booming amid increasing human-bear conflicts

LAKE TAHOE BASIN, Calif. – With a million visitors flooding into the Tahoe Basin every day, wildlife officials urge caution to prevent conflicts between people and the region’s growing bear population. 

According to the Tahoe Interagency Bear Team (TIBT), the number of bears in the area has surged in recent years due to overpopulation, competition for resources, and the lure of unsecured trash and bird feeders in residential areas. 

“When it comes to individual conflicts, you’re right there dealing with it … I just wanted to thank you,” Supervisor Cindy Gustafson said to the Tahoe Interagency Bear Team during a presentation at an Olympic Valley Town Hall meeting. 

The team of presenters were Sarinah Simons with California State Parks, and Kyle Garrett, Shelly Blair, and Alexis Ronning with California Natural Resources Agency’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. 

They said many people never thought of bears until seeing them while visiting the Tahoe Basin. The allure leads people to get close to snap photos and feed them. 

The team urged restraint, and then explained what happens when bears are habituated or food conditioned. 

Bears enter town because of over population, competition, following their nose, bird feeders, and overflowing trash. 

This results in bears getting comfortable around people. 

“A habituation example is a bear finds a bird feeder next to a house. The bear goes to the next house hoping for a bird feeder, but finds a barbecue grill instead. The bear goes to the next house and finds trash. The bear goes to the next house and finds garbage that smells good. The bear breaks into the house,” according to the presentation. 

“The next house the bear goes inside where it smells food. The bear goes into the next house, which also smells good. This time a person is inside. It doesn’t matter because the food is too addicting.” 

Now the bears are shaking doors down and easily breaking deadbolts to gain entry. 

“Look at the deck … They’re here. They’re here … She just wanted to come back in … Don’t you dare … bad bear … Jesus crimeny,” according to a video of a Tahoe Basin woman trying to scare an unwelcome bear away. 

This is not an isolated incident of bears becoming increasingly habituated. 

The conflict bear population data includes DNA collection, trap-tag-haze, collar deployment, and conflict calls. 

In 2022, there were 902 conflict calls, 235 home invasions, 31 permits issued in the California side of Tahoe Basin. In 2023, there were 660 conflict calls, 217 home invasions, and 38 permits issued. 

The DNA data found 258 bears identified through the end of 2023 in the Tahoe Basin.

There were 298 locations with home invasions through the end of 2023. 

“Sixteen repeat offenders cause 55% of the damage,” said Ronning. “Females have a very small home range.” 

Complicating matters further, wildlife agencies have also seen an uptick in reports of undersized cubs and yearlings showing signs of neurological disease. 

“These bears could just be hungry orphans looking for food, but increasingly we are seeing signs of neurologic disease symptoms like a slight head tilt or tremors,” said California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) Veterinarian Brandon Munk. 

Since 2014, CDFW and the Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW) have been investigating encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain, in bears in the Tahoe Basin and throughout their range in California and Nevada. CDFW and NDOW have partnered with researchers at University of California, Davis, and Oregon State University to study the causes of encephalitis in these black bears. 

They have found viruses and parasites associated with encephalitis but have not confirmed the primary causes. 

“We think the condition is more significant as a risk for increased human-bear conflict than a risk to bear populations or to people,” said Dr. Munk. 

Since cubs and yearlings to emerge from their dens this month, the TIBT is doubling down on its efforts to educate about bear safety and responsible practices. They advise keeping a safe distance, resisting the urge to feed bears or “rescue” seemingly orphaned cubs, and actively scaring off bears that come too close to prevent habituation. 

It is illegal to feed bears, including allowing them access to food or garbage. 

If you encounter a bear, call the appropriate state wildlife authorities for assistance. 

To report human-bear conflicts or bear health concerns: 

In California, contact CDFW at (916) 358-2917 or report online using the Wildlife Incident Reporting (WIR) system at apps.wildlife.ca.gov/wir 

Non-emergency wildlife interactions in California State Parks can be reported at (916) 358-1300. 

In Nevada, contact NDOW at (775) 688-BEAR (2327). 

If there’s an immediate threat, call the sheriff’s department or 911.

Learn more about bear country at TahoeBears.org and Bearwise.org.