Earlier this month, a large black bear walked into a trap set by wildlife biologists in the Lake Tahoe Basin. 

The trap is large and rectangular, made of metal. It’s designed to capture bears for research purposes. Once a bear is trapped, wildlife officials sedate it, collect DNA samples from hair, blood and saliva, perform a health evaluation, pin its ear with a tag and then release it back into the wild. All the information collected is added to a database that wildlife officials are using to learn more about bear behavior in Lake Tahoe. 

This particular bear was among the 41 individuals that wildlife officials have captured, tagged and released in Lake Tahoe since 2017. It was a 15-year-old male who had seemingly been living a good life deep in the woods. 

“This was a bear that we only just learned about this weekend,” said Jason Holley, a biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife who has worked with bears in the Lake Tahoe region for some 20 years. This bear was last recorded by Nevada wildlife officials back in 2007, on the other side of the lake. Since then, it had escaped the radar of humans, meaning it probably was living like a bear should, out in the wild.

“Obviously, it’s making a living not breaking into homes, not causing significant damage, otherwise we would have come across it,” Holley said.

In Tahoe, where bears commonly break into houses and cars to find food, or intrude upon picnics and campsites and help themselves to the cooler, or dive into dumpsters for trash fixings, this old wild-ish bear brought good news for Holley.

“Not all bears are bad,” he said.

CDFW calls its research initiative “Trap, Tag, Haze,” referring to the methods by which bears are captured, recorded and then released. The program began in 2017 and recently started up again this spring, when wildlife officials set up research traps in South Lake Tahoe with hopes of tagging and monitoring some of the bears that had been actively breaking into homes in the Tahoe Keys throughout the past year. In just the first couple weeks of the program starting back up this spring, officials captured, tagged and released another five bears.
Wildlife officials say the program gives them invaluable data about Tahoe’s bear population, where bears are prone to eating human food and trash and, in their pursuit of food, cause extensive damage to homes and cars. Among the goals of the program, officials hope to learn more about population densities in different neighborhoods and how bears travel across the landscape. They also want to use DNA evidence collected from the tagged bears to trace family units of bears, hoping to learn more about learned behavior that’s passed down from mother to cub.

“We’re starting to draw comparisons on similar behaviors among related family units, which seems obvious to some, but it also backs it up with hard data,” Holley said. 

Some bear advocates are critical of the traps, however. One veterinarian and 30-year Tahoe resident told the Tahoe Daily Tribune that she thought the traps were inhumane. And Ann Bryant, executive director of the Bear League, a nonprofit and grassroots organization that defends bears in Tahoe, agrees. 

“Some of the information that [the CDFW] has gotten from these programs has given them a little bit, a little bit, of valuable data,” Bryant said in an interview with SFGATE. But the way the program is executed is flawed, she continued. “The ear tags are way too big and some of the bears have pulled off their ears to get rid of the tags.”

Bryant continued to list other ways the “Trap, Tag, Haze” initiative actually traumatizes bears. Once the bears are trapped, they are sedated with drugs that Bryant believes can cause long-term side effects. She holds contempt for traps set up in the forest, where she says bears should roam without fear of being captured. And she’s especially critical of reports of hazing gone wrong. 

Hazing comes when wildlife officials release an animal from the trap and shoot nonlethal ammunition, paintball guns or bean bags to scare the bear so it will run away, ideally into the forest. The aim, Holley says, is to re-instill a fear of humans in the bear. He calls it “tough love,” and he sees hazing as giving bears another chance to become wild again.

“We’re getting some interesting effects,” Holley said. “For some of them, it seems the hazing works pretty well and some of them go back into neighborhoods. Quite frankly, we don’t expect severely habituated and conditioned bears to change from that activity.”

Bryant sees hazing differently. She told SFGATE of eyewitnesses who saw a hazed bear being steered into a highway.

“It’s harassment of bears where they are supposed to be and then scaring them into a heavily populated neighborhood,” she said. “In our opinion, it’s driving the bears into town.”

Instead of trapping, tagging and hazing, Bryant would like to see wildlife officials employ other means of research and monitoring. She suggested collecting DNA samples from bears whose hair samples have snagged onto trees and bushes.

“They can tell so much more without having to do these horrific things to the bears,” Bryant said. “So I don’t agree with this program at all.”

Many people in Tahoe believe humans are the root cause of bear conflicts and accept the responsibility of keeping bears out of their homes. That’s why so many homeowners are installing electric wires across their windows and installing bear-proof trash boxes. 

Since resuming the trap, tag, haze program, wildlife officials have moved traps from South Lake Tahoe to North Lake Tahoe. The Tahoe Daily Tribune reported that some of the research traps are being sabotaged by people who pour ammonia around them. Ammonia is a scent that bears can detect and will avoid. 

Mother bears who are lactating and have cubs are released immediately, said Peter Tira, a spokesperson for CDFW. One night, a trap caught three year-old cubs while their mother was nearby, clearly aggravated that her cubs were behind the metal cage. Wildlife officials opened the trap and let them out, Tira said. 

“These are research traps,” Holley reiterated. Still, wildlife officials are encountering tense resistance when they go out to the traps. 

“Just yesterday, I had some of my biologists accosted, for lack of a better word, with a phone in their face saying, ‘What are you doing here?’” Holley said. “We’re getting scrutinized by some folks, even when we’re doing research.”

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