SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. -- California Department of Fish and Game officials have defended their handling of a case involving three bears whose killings last month prompted a public outcry.
Agency spokesman Patrick Foy insisted the department had no choice but to issue a depredation permit to kill the mother and two cubs suspected of ransacking a cabin near Tahoe's south shore.
"We're doing our best to be reasonable," Foy said. "We're not killers. We're biologists who love wildlife ... Unfortunately, it (depredation permits) is one of the responsibilities we have to protect the public and human life."
But Ann Bryant, executive director of the Tahoe-based BEAR League, said the bears would still be alive had the department done its job.
"This is very typical of Fish and Game," she said. "When all hell breaks loose they scrabble and scrap and try to cover their tracks because they didn't follow their own guidelines and policies."
Foy's comments come a week after Bryant and dozens of other people gathered for a rally here to protest the bears' killings near Camp Richardson as unnecessary and unacceptable.
The mother and her two cubs were killed about Nov. 17 after Fish and Game officials issued a depredation permit to the cabin owners, allowing them to set up a baited trap.
Trappers shot the mother near the cabin and later killed two cubs caught in the trap -- a long metal tube that contained food.
The cubs were destroyed because Fish and Game does not relocate bears. Bryant and Fish and Game officials agree that relocation of problem bears does not work.
The department issued the depredation permit on Nov. 14 after a game warden found bears forced entry to the cabin by apparently leaning against the door and shoving the deadbolt through the jam, Foy said.
The department disputes bear advocates' contention that the bears wandered in after the door blew open.
"Absolutely, the bears broke into the cabin," Foy said. "Bears are incredibly strong. It took the bears' aggressive step to break into the cabin to prompt the permit."
But Bryant said photographs showed no damage to the old, single-pane glass door afterward and there should have been broken glass or wood if it was forced open by bears.
Several neighbors reported seeing the door open many times over the last three years because it apparently didn't close properly, she added.
"The game warden should have told the owners: 'If you get the food out and fix the door and a bear gets in, then I'll give you a depredation permit,"' Bryant said.
But Foy said depredation permits are not easy to come by and the department thoroughly investigated the matter before issuing the permit.
"If the door was left open, I don't think the warden would have issued the permit," cabin owner John Henderson told the Tahoe Daily Tribune.
A game warden also investigated two earlier bear incidents at a nearby cabin in October, but denied the owner a request for a depredation permit.
A mother and two cubs ripped off screens from a third cabin in the same vicinity in late October, but the owner did not request a permit.
Bear advocates say they don't think the three bears killed were the same ones that triggered the depredation permit.
Foy acknowledges no physical characteristics are assigned to bears when depredation permits are issued and there's no way to know whether the same bears were involved.
But he said no bear problems have occurred in the area since the three bears were killed.
"Every single time bears are killed on a depredation permit people will challenge you whether you got the right bears," he said.
California's bear population ranges from 25,000 to 30,000, according to department estimates.
The affected cabin owners have leases with the U.S. Forest Service.
Bryant and Fish and Game officials agree residents and businesses need to do more to keep food away from bears in the Tahoe Basin.