RENO -- Black bears in El Dorado County at Lake Tahoe will no longer be shot with rubber buckshot when they bother people while searching for grub.
As bruins emerge from winter hibernation, the sheriff's office this week announced an immediate halt to the shooting tactic because people are encouraging bears by leaving trash, pet food and other edibles outside.
"We're not going to be successful at this unless we eliminate the draw," Lt. Les Lovell said Thursday. "I would equate this to someone who litters on the roadway and then expects someone else to clean up behind them.
"There has to be some personal responsibility here."
Ann Bryant, executive director of the Homewood, Calif.-based BEAR League, said bear aversion only works in conjunction with food-attraction removal.
"To continue to harass these animals for accepting the ongoing invitation to dine at our mismanaged garbage buffet is nothing short of inhumane wildlife torture," she said.
To help reduce food sources, the Tahoe Council for Wild Bears, a coalition of 11 groups, installed 130 bear-proof trash bins at key areas around Tahoe on Thursday. The containers were funded by a grant from the Wendy P. McCaw Foundation through Defenders of Wildlife.
Wildlife experts say bears accustomed to getting their food from people often become bolder, making them more likely to be destroyed as problem bears.
Since 2000, the bear council said 24 bears have been killed in the Tahoe Basin because of garbage-related incidents.
The aversion program was promising when first implemented a few years ago, Bryant said, but people began to abuse it.
"They lazily left their food and garbage out, then called the sheriff's office to handle the problem they created," she said.
"We continue to shoot these same bears, sometimes nightly, really to no avail," he said.
Lovell said the department is researching an alternative using paintball-type weapons loaded with pepper spray and dye to mark the animals.
"We'll be able to quantify our results," he said, and "see if we're shooting the same bears or not."
He said authorities will work with other county agencies to improve enforcement of an ordinance enacted last summer that authorizes fines for people who routinely leave out trash or food.
The ordinance, Bryant said, "pretty much fell flat on its face" because of lack of enforcement.
"Without that part of the whole, it had no chance but to fail," she said.
But Ginger Huber, El Dorado County's environmental manager, said 60 to 70 notices for first-time violations have been issued since the ordinance took effect July 1.
"We are in the legal process right now for the first violation that's gone to its second notice," she said.
First-time offenders are given a warning. A second offense within two years requires the homeowner to construct a bear-proof enclosure for trash with 30 days.
Subsequent violations within two years after carry a $100 fine, she said.
Authorities cited officer safety as another reason for abandoning the practice of shooting the bears with rubber shot.
"Since most incidents occur in the late night or pre-dawn hours, deputies dressed in dark clothing and carrying shotguns face a very real possibility of being mistaken ... as intruders," the sheriff's office said.
"It is a reasonable expectation that neighbors who wake to gunfire might arm themselves in response."