SOUTH LAKE TAHOE - In 10 days, four bears have been killed along South Shore roads, three of which were near places where signs once stood that warned motorists to watch for the animals crossing streets.
Eleven bear signs were installed along highways 50, 89 and 28 since 2004, according to Caltrans, but bear advocates say all but one of the signs have been stolen in the past year.
While Caltrans officials say they are unaware of the stolen signs, they say they will investigate the matter and may consider placing the 36-pound bear crossing signs higher off the ground and on metal rather than wooden poles.
The Nevada Department of Transportation, which faced a similar theft problem a few years ago, now has the signs attached to metal poles that sit several feet off the ground.
It is illegal to take signs off public highways, and can be an infraction, misdemeanor or felony, depending on the circumstances and damage, according to the California Highway Patrol. Caltrans, in most cases, will levy the fines.
Caltrans values the specially designed bear signs at about $500 each. While roadside theft does happen, some signs are more popular to thieves than others, said spokeswoman Jan Mendoza.
"Usually signs with pictures on them, whether they are fire trucks or animals" are the ones that are most often reported stolen, she said.
The thefts and the subsequent deaths of four bears in 10 days, has bear advocates frustrated.
"The signs have been sawed off, hacked off and stolen," said Anne Bryant, executive director of the BEAR League, a 900-member organization charged with protecting the animals by using nonlethal measures to keep the animals away from humans.
Three yearling bears and one 2 1/2-year-old female were killed within 10 days along highways 89 and 50 on the California side and one was found dead near Zephyr Cove on Highway 50. Bryant said bear signs at one time were posted near three of the fatality areas. She was unsure whether there was a sign posted on the Nevada side where one of the bears was struck and killed.
On the North Shore, two bears will killed by motorists in March and one in April, Bryant said. On the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe, three bears have been killed so far this year, including the one at Zephyr Cove, said Carl Lackey, wildlife biologist for the Nevada Division of Wildlife.