Tahoe bear illuminates cracks in neighborhood refuse policy
Special to the Sierra Sun
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Hank the Tank has gone viral in recent days and while his future has not yet been set in stone, the situation has highlighted a bigger issue in South Lake Tahoe, specifically, the Tahoe Keys, responsibly living with wildlife.
Over the past seven months, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and other local agencies, have received over 150 calls regarding Hank the Tank, a 500-pound black bear.
The CDFW and South Lake Tahoe Police Department have hazed Hank several times, meaning they’ve harassed him with sounds, shocks and sprays as a way to deter him from heavily human-populated areas but at this point, he’s completely habituated.
While he started with breaking into unsecured trash cans, it led to him breaking into secured homes in search of food.
“He’s learned to use his size and strength,” said Peter Tira, communications specialist for CDFW. “It’s a 500-pound wild animal forcing his way into homes.”
Editor’s note: This article appears in the Friday, Feb. 25, edition of the Tribune. After deadline Thursday, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife announced that DNA evidence showed that Hank was not responsible for all the break-ins in Tahoe Keys. While Hank was responsible for some, two other females bears were also responsible for break-ins.
“Considering new evidence suggesting multiple bears are responsible for recent incidents, CDFW will work in coming weeks and months to trap bears in the South Lake Tahoe area, tag them, collect evidence for genetic analysis, and then release them into suitable habitat. During this effort, CDFW will gather information and learn from scientific analysis to help inform and refine our bear management in the Lake Tahoe Basin. CDFW is not going to euthanize any bears that are trapped during this effort,” CDFW stated.
They are asking Tahoe Keys residents to help place traps.
Black bears, more often than not, do not want conflict with humans but it just takes one time of Hank feeling threatened or trapped for that to change. So, while Hank has no history of violence, he can’t be left to continue as has been.
Tira said there are currently three options for Hank; relocation, placement in a facility or euthanasia.
“There is no fairy tale ending for this bear,” Tira said.
With a bear that’s become so dependent on human food, it’s unlikely he would survive long if he is relocated and almost nobody wants to see Hank killed. That leaves placement in a facility.
“We are reaching out to a number of facilities and facilities have reached out to us,” Tira said.
However, Tira said there isn’t a huge demand for a 500-pound adult bear. Even if a facility is willing to take him, they must be accredited and vetted by CDFW staff.
An accredited facility in Colorado has offered to take Hank, so CDFW is working to get the proper permits to move Hank across state lines. However, the state of Colorado must approve the import of the bear, something Tira said they haven’t done in many years.
A GoFundMe called Save Hank The Tank (The Fat Bear) was started Tuesday morning.
“The costs associated with accommodating large apex predators within sanctuaries can be costly, as these sanctuaries typically depend on volunteers and donations. Building suitable infrastructure for appropriately sized enclosures can be a costly expense on sanctuaries. As well as vet bills, treatment, and feeding all add up and a lot of large predators are turned down due to being unable to accommodate them. Which typically means authorities are left with one difficult choice. I would like to prevent that from happening by helping an appropriate shelter or sanctuary with costs of accommodating Hank,” the description said.
They are asking for $50,000.
The heartbreaking part of this story is that it could’ve been avoided.
“Everything is about food for bears,” said Denise Upton, Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care executive director.
While LTWC has no hand in the Hank the Tank situation, they regularly take in sick, wounded or abandoned bear cubs.
Bears should be hibernating right now but Upton said that while the abnormally warm winter may have confused the bears’ internal clocks, the bigger issue is their access to food, specifically, human food.
If the bears can access human food, they don’t need to hibernate.
The city of South Lake Tahoe does not require residents to have bear boxes, except in vacation home rentals. However, South Tahoe Refuse has a bear box loan program to help all homeowners receive a bear box.
However, until recently, the Tahoe Keys Property Owners Association has denied residents the opportunity to put bear boxes on their properties.
The TKPOA refused to comment but Jeanette Tillman, sustainability program manager at STR, said they’ve tried to work with the association in the past.
“They don’t want them because of aesthetic reasons,” Tillman said.
This isn’t to say this is a strictly a Tahoe Keys problem, there are bears all over Tahoe. However, bear boxes, or the lack thereof does make a difference. Tillman estimates that outside of the Keys, about 3,000 residents have bear boxes.
According to Tillman, TKPOA will allow bear boxes to be placed by the house or the garage, but STR needs them to be curbside in order to be picked up.
It is an antiquated system and STR is considering moving away from bear boxes. They are now considering Kodiak Cans, which are bear-proof containers that can be rolled out and picked up by an automated truck, like a normal trash can.
In the January 2022 Keys Breeze newsletter, there was an article about bears which highlighted to increase in bear activity and the importance of responsibly living with bears.
“Sadly, it appears that there are way too many black bears inhabiting South Lake Tahoe. Some estimates range in the neighborhood of 200-plus black bears just on the California side of the Tahoe Basin TKPOA is considering working with several organizations (state, Federal and local) to develop a truly coordinated strategy for managing the population of these large creatures” the newsletter stated.
It mentioned working with STR to start a pilot program for the Kodiak can, which they describe as totes, which would be placed in steel enclosures.
“STR wants to test launch a wholly new trash pickup service over the next two years. This is being driven by the need for STR to convert the present service of man-handling 32-gallon garbage cans into an automated hydraulic service that does the heavy-lifting into the trucks. Man-handling these very heavy loads takes a physical toll on the workers,” the newsletter said.
Tilllman said that although TKPOA has expressed interest in using Kodiak Cans, it’s a timely and expensive process.
“We can’t just snap our fingers and produce boxes,” Tillman said.
There are ways to prevent bears from getting into garbage in the meantime.
“Don’t put food in the garbage,” Tillman said. “They really go after things that taste good.”
Cleaned food containers can go into recycling and food waste can either be put into the garbage disposal which is collected downstream and composted, brought directly to STR each Wednesday for composting, which is free or frozen and placed in the garbage the morning of trash pick up.
The Tahoe Keys also has a communal bear box at the pavilion, where people can bring their trash.
Tira and Upton both stressed the importance of safely securing food. There is a possibility Hank wouldn’t be in this situation if he hadn’t been able to easily access food.
“This could’ve been avoided and it can be avoided in the future,” Tira said.
After SLTPD responded to a Hank related call on Friday, Feb. 18, they said in a Facebook post, “Hank the Tank,“ our big bear friend who has adopted the Tahoe Keys neighborhood as his residential area, is trying harder and harder to to prove to the Keys HOA that they need to allow bear boxes.”
The GoFundMe for Hank also states, “I feel Hank is a byproduct of human irresponsibility and ignorance. I don’t feel that it is fair for Hank to have to suffer the consequences of human negligence and short sightedness, just because he has become an inconvenience for people to moderate or control.”
Tillman also adds that it’s not just bad for the bears when they get into the garbage.
“When bears eat out of the garbage, it has to go straight to landfill,” Tillman said. “It just makes me sick and it brings down the whole community. Having animals get garbage has a huge impact on our biocycle.”
To learn about CDFW’s bear policy, visit https://wildlife.ca.gov/Conservation/Mammals/Black-Bear/Statewide-Policy.
Laney Griffo is a Staff Writer for the Tahoe Daily Tribune, a sister publication of the Sierra Sun. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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