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South Lake Tahoe grapples with 500-pound problem: A bear that breaks into homes for food

He has many names: Yogi, Chunky, Hank the Tank, Jake. Some people simply call him the Big Guy.

What everyone can agree on is that the 500-pound black bear roaming around South Lake Tahoe, Calif., has become a problem. For the last seven months, the bear has caused property damage and broken into nearly 30 homes in and near the waterfront Tahoe Keys neighborhood searching for food.

Because the bear has become accustomed to humans and would appear to consider them a source of easily accessible food, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has labeled it a “severely food-habituated” conflict bear.

On Wednesday, members of a local homeowners association agreed to allow the state to use their properties to capture the bear, but it’s unclear what will happen once he’s contained. For one, traps recently set up in the neighborhood proved unsuccessful for catching the wily bear, and the state is reevaluating its strategies.

After it’s captured, the bear could be killed or relocated, according to the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“Any decision on what to do with the bear after capture is the discretion” of the state, department spokesperson Peter Tira wrote in an email.

According to the department’s black bear policy, “Adult bears may be poor candidates for placement [in a sanctuary] due to the chronic stress of adjusting to captivity after living in only wild conditions.”

Ann Bryant, who oversees the advocacy group Bear League, said the Tahoe Keys bear is docile and only searching for food.

“He’s on a mission. You can tell he likes to eat,” Bryant said. “The Big Guy likes to eat where it’s easy to get food, and he doesn’t like to forage.”

Bryant, who has lived in South Lake Tahoe for nearly 40 years, agrees the bear is a problem for the community and said it should not be allowed to roam anymore. But she wants the bear to be relocated to an animal sanctuary.

Dr. Jackie Gai, veterinary director at the PAWS Sanctuary in Galt, Calif., said the organization is open to placing the bear but has not heard from the state. The Department of Fish and Wildlife said all accredited facilities may be considered for relocation; as of Thursday, it said on its website, it had not identified a relocation option that meets its criteria.

Joby Cefalu, board member with the homeowners association that voted this week to consider a capture and euthanasia option, would rather see the bear relocated but understands that might not work out.

Killing a wild animal is a last resort, Cefalu said, but it’s still something the state would consider.

“Nobody on our board took lightly the situation of depredation,” Cefalu said, who noted he did not speak for the entire board. “We want nothing to do with taking a bear away. We’re meant to coexist. Unfortunately, this is a human problem.”

Human waste has urbanized wild animals such as the Big Guy, and now those bears are fearless when it comes to humans.
“I would love to see this guy go to a sanctuary,” said Katherine Borges, a South Lake Tahoe resident for four decades. “Everybody wants the bear to be someplace else. Most people love our bears and we don’t want to kill them.”

A lack of secure trashcans or bear boxes trained wildlife in the Tahoe Keys neighborhood to scrounge for food in bins, nearby resident Brooke Laine said.

“To kill the bear because we didn’t secure our own garbage just rubs everyone the wrong way,” said Laine, who does not live in the neighborhood where the bear visits. “The bears just got used to having plentiful food at their disposal.”

Laine sees the threat of urbanized bears as one that affects all of South Lake Tahoe, not just one neighborhood.

“We care how we treat wildlife. We care about that deeply. We do everything we can as citizens to protect our environment,” Laine said. “Euthanizing a bear that is not harmful to humans is a disservice to wildlife.”

On Friday, the Tahoe Keys bear broke into a home and squeezed through a small window while searching for food. Police banged on the outside of the home until he reemerged and left.

Black bears are opportunistic eaters, said Toogee Sielsch, a South Lake Tahoe resident of 40 years who has become a go-to contact for locals. He’s not a biologist but has become familiar with bear hazing techniques, such as making loud noises to get a bear to leave a person’s property.

It’s not unusual for bears to try to open windows or sliding doors to get into a home. But the Big Guy is a bit more direct.

“This bear is going through front doors, deadbolts and all,” Sielsch said. “I wish there was an easy fix to this.”

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