Now entering the fourth year of drought, wildlife officials are expecting a growing number of conflicts between western Nevada residents and bears this summer.
Chris Healy of the Nevada Wildlife Department said when habitat conditions are good, “we don’t see many bears” because they can find the food they need in the mountains. But when drought or a late freeze stunts the growth of natural food sources, he said urban fruit trees and garbage cans are a magnet for the animals.
And Carson City is a prime target for hungry bears.
“The west side of Carson is a very attractive place for bears because there are a lot of old, established fruit trees,” he said. “When they start producing fruit in the summer and into the fall, it’s just like ringing a dinner bell for bears. They can smell for miles when the fruit starts ripening. If the fruit crop isn’t good, they get into other things.”
Healy said that means garbage cans become much more attractive when the fruit trees don’t have a good year.
“What people don’t consume becomes garbage that’s a lot of calories and easy to get.”
He said the department’s busiest year ever was 2007 when a late freeze around Memorial Day wiped out much of the natural foods and was followed by a hot dry summer.
“That drove bears down in record numbers,” Healy said adding that wildlife captured 159 bears that year and another 35 were hit and killed by cars.
Then conditions got much better from 2008 through 2011, “and we didn’t see that many bears.”
“But in 2012, things started drying out again and ’13 and ’14 were very busy bear years,” Healy said. “We think ’15 is going to be busier than both those years.”
He said access to human garbage is the biggest problem with those bears because they get conditioned to large quantities of easy calories and become much less frightened of people.
“Then they get into trouble and, if they get into too much trouble, sometimes they become dead bears,” he said.
Healy said the department has had to kill more than 100 bears since 1997 and people have to take a lot of the blame for that.
“A wildland bear, the ones that want to be wild and don’t want to deal with humans, they’re 125-150 pound females,” he said. “Males a little larger than that.
“But we’ve had some really big black bears, especially in the Tahoe Basin. There’s a good chance if you’re dealing with a 450-500 pound bear, you’re dealing with a bear that’s found human sources of food.”
Healy said people — either by being careless with garbage or worse, intentionally — feeding bears are the big problem.
“What they are actually doing is making the bears dependent on humans to the point where they can get aggressive with humans,” he said. “They turn the bear into a dangerous bear and leave wildlife officials almost no alternative but to euthanize the bear.”
He urged people not to provide the bears with food by not putting garbage cans out the night before but in the morning of collection. He said Incline Village in particular is still fighting that battle but Carson City’s west side has the same problem.
The other problem at Tahoe, he said, is the near weekly turnover of visitors renting cabins at Tahoe — renters who don’t know the rules about avoiding bear problems.
“People come in Sunday, rent a condo for a week. Next week they leave and the next wave of tourists come in,” he said. “It’s a constant challenge to get the word to these people not to leave their garbage for the bears.”
He said as encounters with bears increase, hikers also need to know how to avoid trouble.
He said people are actually only going to get attacked if they surprise a bear.
“If you’re out hiking, make sure you’re making noise so animals know you’re coming and can get out of your way,” Healy said. “If you’re not making noise and surprise one of them, you have the potential for a dangerous conflict.”
The bottom line: “You’re going to see more bears more often.”