Headed to the Tahoe Basin for one last summer camping trip? Black bear biologists who work in the Tahoe Basin every day have some advice and thoughts to share.
The Lake Tahoe Basin is the heart of bear country and bears in the basin are especially active and persistent in their search for food as they prepare for leaner times in the fall and winter. Sometimes, the easiest food for them to find is human food and garbage.
“Anyone coming to the Tahoe area should educate themselves on bear behavior and general bear ecology,” said Alexia Ronning, an environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and one of three bear biologists hired recently by CDFW to the Tahoe Basin to help prevent and mitigate human-bear conflicts. “There are a lot of bears here and they have an incredibly strong sense of smell and a strong desire for food that intensifies at different times of the year, particularly in the fall with the onset of hyperphagia.”
Hyperphagia is the biological instinct for bears to fatten up for the winter, which drives them to consistently feed and search for food.
“Read and follow all campground rules, and if there is an incident – whether it’s a bear getting into a car or getting into food at a campground – report it to the camp host or the proper government agency,” said Ronning.
Ronning encourages Tahoe Basin visitors to pack a few specialty safety items before heading out to enjoy the outdoors and to help keep Tahoe Basin bears from getting too close and comfortable around people. Conflicts are most likely to occur in settings where human food and garbage are present, such as campgrounds.
“Consider carrying bear spray and read the product instructions carefully before heading out camping. Remember to spray bear spray downwind,” said Ronning. “Bring an air horn and a whistle or bang pots and pans. Those noises will help scare a bear away to a safer distance and the noise will also warn fellow campers and hikers that a bear is nearby.”
Alyson Cheney is another environmental scientist hired by CDFW in the spring as a full-time bear biologist and human-wildlife conflict specialist in the Tahoe Basin.
Proper food storage is a consistent problem Cheney has seen from campers all summer in the Tahoe Basin.
“People assume their ice chests are bear-proof, but in most cases, they are not,” she said. “If they can’t be locked or latched securely with no way to pry a gap between the lid and the cooler, they need to go into a bear box. Bring all necessary equipment to store food properly whether that’s a bear-proof canister or a bear-resistant ice chest.”
“Once a bear gets a food reward it is more likely to come back,” Cheney continued, “so taking preventative measures is the best way to stay safe.”
Kyle Garrett is the third member of CDFW’s newly assembled Tahoe Basin bear team. Another environmental scientist, Garrett worked with black bears and grizzly bears in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming before joining CDFW this past spring to help with the Lake Tahoe Basin’s human-bear conflicts.
Garrett said ice chests and coolers offer campers a false sense of security that their food is properly stored. He has seen bears carry off $300 and $400 coolers they couldn’t immediately get into.
“In the Basin, bears can show up in a campground, in the backcountry or even a neighborhood. All the best bear practices need to be followed at all times,” he said.
One common problem Garrett sees is conscientious campers using bear boxes for food storage and bear-proof dumpsters for garbage but not closing them securely. Therefore, he reminds everyone that, “they have to be latched properly to be functional.”
Visitors to Lake Tahoe can play a key role in helping keep bears wild by practicing these strategies and being extra vigilant as bears approach the hyperphagia period.
For more information about bear-safe camping visit CDFW’s Keep Me Wild/Sharing Space Outdoors web page or watch California State Parks’ Bear Facts and Tips video: Bear Facts and Tips - YouTube
Use the following phone numbers and online resources to report bear incidents or conflict while camping or visiting the Lake Tahoe Basin:
In California, contact CDFW at (916) 358-2917 or report online using the Wildlife Incident Reporting (WIR) system at apps.wildlife.ca.gov/wir.
Non-emergency bear collisions in California State Parks can be reported to its public dispatch at (916) 358-1300.
In Nevada, contact NDOW at (775) 688-BEAR (2327).
If the issue is an emergency, call the local sheriff’s department or 911.
Learn more about keeping Tahoe bears wild at TahoeBears.org and BearWise.org.