Questions raised about trap, tag, haze bear program at Tahoe

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — Lake Tahoe has one of the highest concentrations of black bears in North America. And because Lake Tahoe is also very densely populated, there is bound to be conflict.

In some areas bears are considered a nuisance, as they take advantage of the readily available food source left by humans. There are reports of bears breaking into homes in Tahoe at least once a week in search of food, according to officials.

It is the goal of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to trap these bears and safely remove them as far away from neighborhoods as possible.

Peter Tira, public information officer for CDFW, who along with a team, has caught, tagged and released 41 bears since 2017, including five in the past week, as part of the Trap-Tag-Haze program.

A bear moments after its release as part of a coordinated trap, tag, and haze effort between CDFW and California State Parks in Lake Tahoe on Oct. 22, 2020.
Photo courtesy CDFW/Travis VanZant

Tira said bears are humanely trapped, usually around populated areas, and while sedated, they are tagged and receive a veterinary exam. DNA is then collected in the form of blood, hair and saliva samples, that is then entered into a database.

The CDFW, through tagging and the collecting of DNA samples, have been able to determine relatability between the bears. Even speculating that mother bears, called sows, are passing problem behavior down to their cubs.

The animal is then released to a wild habitat nearby.

“We had some community concerns about what happens if you catch a sow with cubs,” Tira said. “Any lactating sow was immediately released on site. We monitor the traps closely so that any lactating sow with cubs nearby was just released. She wasn’t taken away, processed or hazed, or anything like that. She was released on site to be with her cubs.

“When we let it go, we typically haze it upon release, which means we make a lot of noise, have air horns,” Tira added. “There is typically law enforcement there, which is either state park and wildlife officers from Fish and Wildlife. They often shoot non-lethal projectiles at the bears such as bean bags and paintballs. The idea is to give the bear a negative interaction with humans.”

Tira said that he and the CDFW have seen mixed results. There are some bears that stay away and transition back to a completely wild lifestyle, and never interact with humans or neighborhoods again. And then there are those bears that come right back and continue their nuisance behavior.

Licensed California and Nevada veterinarian, and also 30-year Tahoe resident, Dr. Staci Baker, calls the Trap, Tag, Haze practice, “Murder.”

Baker believes that CDFW and other state wildlife agencies have to step up their game and be held accountable.

“One is timing,” Baker said. “The bears are emerging from hibernation. They have their young bears and they want to eat. The second is location. The traps are being set in the forest. The forest is where you want the bears. They put all kinds of yummy food in the trap. The bear follows its nose and gets in the trap. They’re driving bears into residential neighborhoods.”

Baker goes on to say that once these bears are trapped, they are taken away and slaughtered.

“As for the management goals of trap, tag, haze, we are trying to keep these bears from becoming nuisance bears and from becoming killed,” Tira said. “This is a non-lethal management activity designed to haze bears and make them want to avoid seeking food from humans and around humans.”

When asked how much of a role animal activists play in thwarting the efforts of trap, tag, haze, Tira said, “We actually haven’t heard any complaints about Trap, Tag, Haze. People get concerned when they see the trap, or they don’t understand what’s going on. They think we’re trapping to kill the bear. Once they learn about Trap, Tag, Haze and the process, almost uniformly people are supportive of it.”

Baker has said that community members against the Trap, Tag, Haze method are secretly going around their neighborhoods and rubbing ammonia on the traps, which mitigates the smell of the attractants in the trap and makes the bear stay away.

Tira, who vehemently states that the CDFW is not killing these bears after they are caught, said that, “When bears become a significant nuisance or problem, the property owners and others have the right under California law to seek lethal depredation to kill the bear.”

A depredation permit is a legal document, obtained by a homeowner from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to address a problem predator, in this case, a bear, that is causing injury or property damage.

One thing that both sides can agree upon is that this is a human problem.

“The so-called trap, tag, haze program conducted by the CDFW places all the blame on the bears while allowing humans to continue their irresponsible actions such as: improper trash management, deliberately feeding bears, refusing to eliminate bird feeders, not securing crawl space openings, etc,” said Anne Bryant of the Bear League, a 25-year-old nonprofit wildlife organization. “The bears are not the ‘bad guys,’ they are only responding to the ring of the proverbial dinner bell. But bears pay the ultimate price with their lives, because apathetic humans simply can’t be bothered to do what is right, and the CDFW, with this program, condones the twisted, unfair and never-ending losing battle,”

To help minimize Lake Tahoe’s nuisance bear problem, Tira said that the CDFW and all of the different agencies in Lake Tahoe come together to do public outreach to educate and work with the community.

“We’re talking about the Nevada Department of Wildlife, California Department of Wildlife, U.S. Forest Service, State Parks — we are all in touch regularly,” Tira said. “We do have an outreach campaign to educate the public in terms of best practices for minimizing conflicts and we’re also working with the community. We have an effort to educate the public about proper trash storage and food storage.”

“The CDFW is not, by any remote stretch, a wildlife protection agency,” Bryant said. “They are assigned the task of managing game animals for hunters to kill. To attempt a more diplomatic rephrase this fact is not possible.”

Sara Jackson is a freelancer writer for the Tahoe Daily Tribune, a sister publication of the Sierra Sun.

A caution sign on the side of a California Department of Fish and Wildlife bear trap in Lake Tahoe on Oct. 22, 2020.
Photo courtesy CDFW/Travis VanZant


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