A big brown bear roots through a pile of garbage. A police officer with a shotgun is nearby -- but hold on: this scenario doesn't mean the animal is going to die.
Increasingly, law enforcement scares off bears nosing in neighborhoods with shotguns loaded with rubber bullets or blanks that explode with light and noise. Officers then talk to the residents and instruct them to put away the garbage or food that attracted the bears.
South Lake Tahoe Police Department this week received two bear-aversion kits to jump-start its program. The kits, worth $200 a piece, were donated by the BEAR League, an organization based in Homewood that works to protect the animals.
"Most of the calls don't ever reach the newspaper," said South Lake Tahoe police Officer Scott Willson, who organized bear-aversion training for 14 officers last month.
"We tell the homeowner to leave the bear alone," Willson said. "And what we've learned through training is to make sure the bears have an escape route."
Willson said before officers shoot rubber at a bear, they attempt to scare it by taking an aggressive posture and yelling "bad bear."
In the early 1990s, El Dorado County sheriff's deputies honked their horns and flipped on their lights and sirens to scare bears. But the animals learn quickly. and that technique didn't work for long, said Sgt. Randy Peshon.
In 1999, the sheriff's department began carrying aversion kits in patrol cars. Before the police adopted an aversion program, the department responded to all bear calls in the county and the city. Deputies used aversion technique on 39 bears in 2000. In 2001, aversion was used 17 times. This year, deputies have scared off 20 bears with rubber bullets.
"As more (rural) areas get their garbage locked up, we're starting to see the problem coming into urban areas," Peshon said.
"Most of our calls we go out on are not aversions," he said. "We go out and say, 'Yep, that's a bear. Stay away from it and lock up your garbage.'"
Peshon said bear aversion is a short-term solution. Educating residents about bears and garbage is the real answer.
Clashes between humans and bears can get ugly. Last month, a bear was killed at Gardner Mountain, a neighborhood west of the "Y" that attracts a lot of bears. Someone shot and injured a bear, and police were called to destroy the animal, Willson said.
Last week, three bears were killed at Spring Creek near cabins off Emerald Bay Road north of Camp Richardson. California Department of Fish and Game issued a permit to owners of a cabin ransacked by bears. The depredation permit allowed the couple to set a trap next to their cabin.
Trappers shot a mother bear near the cabin and later killed two cubs caught in the trap -- a long metal tube that contained food. The cubs were killed because Fish and Game does not relocate bears.
A vigil for the dead bears is planned at 11 a.m. Sunday in front of the Shell station at the "Y." Call Frances at (530) 542-4927 or Anita at (530) 577-5934 for more information.
-- To donate money to supply the South Lake Tahoe Police Department with more bear-aversion kits, call Officer Scott Willson at (530) 542-6100. Or send money for aversion kits to the BEAR League by calling (530) 525-7297 or going to www.savebears.org.