They Belong Here: Help Keep Tahoe Bears Wild

By: Trent Unruh

Lake Tahoe is black bear country, and we like it that way. Our ursine locals have called this place home hundreds of thousands of years before even the Washoe Native American Tribe first stepped foot in the area, and as apex predators are deserving of everyone’s respect and consideration.

Tahoe Black Bears

Stroll through the woods in South Lake Tahoe | Photo by @mikeronnebeck.

Black bears are the only kind of bear you can find around Lake Tahoe or in California and are much smaller and more timid than their brown bear and grizzly cousins to the north. Black bears vary in color from tan or brown to black but are typically dark brown with a brown muzzle but Tahoe bears have been described as having a cinnamon color.  A wild, healthy black bear should flee at the sight or smell of humans and typically weigh between 200-400 pounds.

Bears in the Lake Tahoe basin are opportunistic omnivores, meaning they will eat pretty much anything available to them, including grasses, roots, seeds, nuts, grubs, ants, carrion, as well as small mammals, young elk, fawn deer, and even birds. Unfortunately, being an adventurous eater can create problems when human food and garbage enter the picture.

With a sense of smell ten times more powerful than a blood hound’s, black bears can be attracted to unsecured food and garbage in their search for easy calories, especially in the fall as they eat and drink nearly nonstop in preparation for winter. If a bear’s past experience tells them they can expect to find food where humans live, with no resistance from those humans, they will continue to return, which can ultimately lead to a death sentence for the bear. But it doesn’t have to be that way, you can help protect them!

Protect Tahoe Bears

Bears wrestling while mom looks for ants nearby | Photo by @byetahoe

While black bears are more than capable of looking after themselves in the wild, they could use a little bit of help from people to avoid issues.

In the Forest

A brown bear cub hiding in a tree, waiting for people to leave | Photo by @wicked.wildlife.
  • NEVER approach a bear.
  • If you see a bear that does not see you, back away and make noise so the bear knows you are there.
  • If you see a bear cub alone and not in obviously poor condition or distress, it is likely waiting for its mother to return from searching for food and SHOULD BE LEFT ALONE.
  • If a bear sees you and is surprised or curious, DO NOT RUN, don’t act aggressively. Show the bear you mean no harm by talking softly and calmly as you continue to back away. 
  • If a bear approaches you, stand your ground and make yourself appear larger by raising your arms above your head or opening your jacket wide if you are wearing one.
  • Humans are encouraged to make noise, especially by talking or singing, to alert bears of their presence. Carrying and knowing how to use bear spray could also save your life in the rare event of a bear charging.
  • Keep dogs on leash. Off-leash dogs can provoke bears to respond defensively.
  • Watch for signs of bears, such as bear scat along trails or claw marks on trees, and stay alert. Make noise while you are there so they can avoid you.

When Camping

Getting lost in the Desolation Wilderness | Photo by @cahwy89.
  • Use bear-proof containers and always keep trash, recycling, and compost in secure bins.
  • Clean the grill after each use and store it properly.
  • NEVER leave trash at campsites.
  • NEVER leave food or scented items unattended in campsites, tents, or vehicles. Bears can open car doors and may cause damage trying to get to the food inside.

Around Town and Neighborhoods

A painted bear box in South Lake Tahoe | Photo by @cathyroweart
  • DO NOT leave trash or garbage out overnight unless it’s in a “bear-proof” container.
  • DO NOT feed bears. Giving food to bears can be a death sentence. As the old adage goes, “a fed bear is a dead bear.”
  • DO NOT leave pet food out on decks overnight.
  • DO NOT leave food or ice chests on decks or in vehicles.
  • Keep doors and windows closed and locked when you aren’t around.
  • Keep BBQs clean.
  • DO NOT feed wildlife, this will attract bears.
  • If you see a bear in a tree, bring pets and people inside. Black bears will often climb a tree if frightened and won’t come down as long as humans or dogs are present.

On the Road

Bears crossing the road near South Lake Tahoe at dusk | Photo by @jhestenes
  • Take it slow and be on the lookout for bear cubs. If you ever see a bear crossing the road, don’t assume it is the only one. Cubs usually follow close behind the adult and could use the help of patient motorists to be sure they all make it across safely.
  • Seriously, SLOW DOWN. Being hit by cars and trucks is the biggest killer of wildlife in the Lake Tahoe Basin. You can make a positive impact just by slowing down and looking for the animals that call Tahoe home.

Do a Bear a Favor

Hiding behind a tree. Photo by @rvfever. 

​​“Instead of trying to get that perfect picture or great video of a bear, let them know that they are too close and appreciate them from a distance,” said Denise Upton, Animal Care Director at Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care. “The biggest favor you can do a bear is to consistently not let them get away from being close to your territory without consequences. Even as a guest, show them it’s your space, and don’t be afraid to yell at them, use an air horn, or bang things together if you are a safe distance away. In the rare event that a bear finds its way into a building, be sure to keep clear of the way they came in as that is usually the way they will exit.”

Black bear attacks are extremely rare and generally occur when a human is between a sow and her cubs or when an unsuspecting foraging bear is startled.

Bear With Us

Want to learn more about the bears in and around the Lake Tahoe Basin? Visit the links below!

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