A “purring” sound that a South Lake Tahoe resident heard under the floorboards of their rental home this winter turned out to be five unwanted house guests — a mother black bear and her four cubs.
The BEAR League, a nonprofit group that works to keep bears in the area safe, recently responded to a call for help, discovering the family of five had been staying under the house, according to a CNN report.
BEAR League officials surmised the bears may have been holing up under the house since December.
According to the league, bears do not hibernate deeply, they go into torpor, which is a state of physical or mental inactivity.
The noises the renter heard were likely the bears snoring, nursing or rolling around, a BEAR League official told CNN.
What happened: When the BEAR League arrived at the house to help, the mama bear was standing near the house. BEAR League officials flashed a light under the house and saw a pair of eyes flashing back at them in a far back corner of the house.
Eventually the cubs made their way out on their own and met up with their mom. There was no damage to the house.
The family of five attempted to return to the same house, but it has since been fortified with an “electrical guard” that administers a small shock. According to the CNN article, the shock doesn’t harm the bears, but it scares them off.
The big picture: Human-bear encounters are not unusual in the Tahoe area, and such interactions can result in serious injury or death to wildlife and humans.
One bear, dubbed Hank the Tank, was believed to be responsible for 28 home invasions in the Tahoe Keys area. Previously, authorities believed Hank the Tank was responsible for all of the break-ins, CNN reported. But DNA testing has since revealed at least three bears may be to blame for breaking into numerous residences, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
What about bears in Utah? Human-bear encounters in Utah’s urban areas are less common, according to Darren DeBloois, game mammals program coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. In recent years, there have been more encounters between humans and big cats, he said.
More commonly, bears conflict with livestock or consume crops, he said.
“We have had issues with them getting into watermelons” in the Green River area, said DeBloois. They have also been known to enter sunflower fields “and eat a ton of those.”
There are occasional encounters in Utah’s backcountry when bears enter campgrounds to seek out human food, which poses safety concerns and can damage property.
“We haven’t had a lot but we do occasionally get a bear in town. But usually it’s a young bear that’s dispersing and someone sees it and it either leaves before we get there or when we get there,” DeBloois said. Most often, they are young bears that have been pushed out by their mothers to fend for themselves.
In those instances, wildlife officers tranquilize the bear and relocate it some 30 miles away.
Even then, some bears work their way back to the place they were captured, which is more problematic. Particularly if they have become accustomed to eating human food, human safety is in peril and the bear must be euthanized.
“It’s the last thing we want to ever have to do,” DeBloois said.
Bear population rising: In the West, conflicts are rising as bear populations increase and humans continue to encroach on their habitat, said Terry Messmer, professor of wildland resources at Utah State University and Extension wildlife specialist.
“What it all revolves around is hunger. These bears, they’re hungry and they’re finding available food resources in areas where humans are living. We’ve got garbage. We’ve got dog food, we’ve got poultry, fruit trees, you name it,” he said.
Summer cabins are typically vacant during the winter when bears hibernate so they can be attractive to bears.
“And so, we have a perfect storm, if you will. Compounding this whole thing is climate change and fires,” said Messmer, who is also director of the Jack H. Berryman Institute for Wildlife Damage Management, which seeks to reduce human-wildlife conflicts through education, research and outreach.
Climate change has impacted bears’ hibernation patterns, meaning they hibernate later and emerge earlier than in the past. “That further increases the time frame where humans and bears can interact. So yeah, there’s some big issues,” Messmer said.
How to reduce human-bear conflicts? One of the most effective means to reduce these conflicts is eliminating “anthropogenic” food resources, Messmer said.
That means better managing garbage; dog, cat and other animal food; bird feeders; and urban chicken coops.
“Once you get a bear habituated to human food sources, and knowing that it can get food and going to these areas, it’s going to continue to do that,” he said.
Sadly, the outcome is that bears have to be put down because if they’re relocated, they often return. “The consequences for the bears are not good,” Messmer said, noting that big cats also seek out the food sources and conflicts arise.
While some municipalities are attempting to minimize bears’ access to garbage with specially designed cans, individuals need to curb bears’ access to supplemental food sources on their own property.
“It comes down to a matter of humans accepting responsibility for some of these things and doing the right thing,” Messmer said.