Tahoe Sierra Nature


On July 29, 2012, an angry lakefront property owner allegedly shot and killed a well-known bear named “Sunny” on Lake Tahoe’s West Shore. Sunny, the unofficial mascot of the Tahoe BEAR League, a bear advocacy group, was shot in the back after wandering onto a property to get food from a cooler left outside on a porch.

“Sunny” was a friendly, mellow bear that enjoyed daytime strolls (hence her name).

The shooting death of Sunny enraged many residents in the Homewood neighborhood where she was remembered fondly. Anne Bryant, Executive Director of the BEAR League said, “This was a bear that was very much loved. She was a gentle, sweet bear. She was a neighbor.”

Part of a new bear awareness exhibit at the North Lake Tahoe Historical Society’s Gatekeepers Cabin Museum located near the Tahoe Dam in Tahoe City. Note that it is “Sunny’s” face in the center panel. People and bears must learn to cohabitate with each other in the Tahoe Basin.

Unlike the grizzly bear which was hunted and poisoned to extinction in California by the 1920s, the California Black Bear is a common mammal found throughout the Sierra Nevada.

Grizzly bears were the most dangerous animal in early California. These ferocious predators terrorized Indians, vaqueros, Forty-Niners and ranchers. They were hunted to extinction by the 1920s in the Golden State.

In the Tahoe Basin, bears have become a nuisance problem for some homeowners. In certain areas around the Lake, bears are often breaking into houses in search of food. Once a bear locates an easily accessible food source, destructive behavior can become a persistent problem, especially for second homeowners who are often away for weeks at a time with food left in cupboards and refrigerators.

Tahoe homeowners that have been victimized by intruding bears are less sympathetic to the plight of these beautiful animals just trying to survive in an increasingly urbanized region. Tahoe residents are urged to be “bear aware.”

Black bears are naturally afraid of people and easily scared away, but they are also intelligent and learn quickly.

Several companies have sprung up recently that will electrify a home’s perimeter and windows to discourage bear intrusions using electrical shocks. These new technologies are much more efficient and humane than older tactics such as hammering scores of nails through lumber and placing the boards with the metal nail tips up below exterior windows or doors.

The fur of California black bears can be black, brown, blonde, or copper red in color. This display is also at the new North Lake Tahoe Historical Society’s “Ursus Among Us” exhibit.

Bears are omnivores that in nature have a varied diet, but in Tahoe they have also learned that it’s much easier to raid unsecured dumpsters behind restaurants for pizza crusts or other kitchen refuse, than rambling through the woods looking for insects, berries, and grubs.

In recent years, restaurant employees have been encouraged to keep trash dumpsters securely locked. Volunteers have distributed rock climbing carabineers to secure dumpster lids and prevent unwanted bear activity. More and more homeowners are installing “bear boxes,” bear-proof metal containers to hold their trash cans.

Dumpster labels have been distributed to Tahoe restaurants to increase awareness of bear feeding problems.

Much of the blame for nuisance bear activity is placed on unaware residents and tourists who put trash outside days before collection pickup. Waste food attracts bears, as well as neighborhood dogs, coyotes, and raccoons.

Urban visitors have little knowledge of the civilization-wilderness interface where humans and animals must learn to cohabitate in harmony. Sunny’s death was a stark wake-up call that Tahoe residents and visitors have a long way to go before that harmony is achieved.