Bear Naked Truth

Goings-on with black bears in the Tahoe Basin and beyond

  • August 31, 2021
A black bear lies on the ground next to a tree in the Tahoe Basin after release into the wild.

Earlier this year, the young female black bear revels in her newfound freedom upon release into the wild following months of care and rehabilitation in captivity after being struck by a vehicle in the Lake Tahoe Basin. CDFW photo.

While they can thrill tourists and residents alike with their mere presence, antics and brazen behavior, life is no vacation for the Tahoe Basin’s black bears. They often face many more serious threats to their survival and well-being – traffic, disease, a garbage-filled diet, human conflicts and now wildfire – than many of their wildland counterparts.

That point was driven home recently when veterinarians at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) had to euthanize a year-and-a-half old female bear – one of the “South Shore Four” – released this spring back into the wild after seven months of rehabilitation at Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care (LTWC). The bear arrived at LTWC in September 2020 as a 50-lb. cub suffering a broken leg after being hit by a car on Emerald Bay Road near Eloise Avenue.

Rehabbed alongside three local orphaned bear cubs – two males and one female – the young females were released together last April about 70 miles from South Lake Tahoe.

The one female with the healed hind leg was of particular concern to biologists. The cub’s mother was a known problem bear – raiding garbage cans, breaking into garages and cars – and was thought to be teaching these same behaviors to the cub before the cub was struck by a car and taken to LTWC for rehabilitation.

Outfitted with a GPS tracking collar and a No. 83 blue plastic tag in her left ear, the female bear, weighing some 150-lbs. at that point, headed almost immediately back to South Lake Tahoe, the bear’s collar sending signals from the Freel Peak area. Campers later spotted the bear in the Zephyr Cove area and South Lake Tahoe residents reported seeing the bear in the exact backyard where it was believed to have been born. The bear showed little fear of either cars or people.

Then, on May 24, the bear was found unresponsive, sprawled out on its side at the base of a tree in a residential backyard along Freel Peak Ave., leading to initial speculation that the bear had been struck once again by a vehicle. An emergency visit to a local animal hospital, however, showed no sign of trauma. The bear was returned to LTWC for care and observation.

Although the bear improved after a week, LTWC staff agreed that the bear never recovered fully. Mentally, it seemed like a different bear altogether than the one staff had cared for prior to its April release – mentally dull and lethargic.

In June, the bear was moved yet again – this time to CDFW’s Wildlife Health Lab near Sacramento for further observation and examination by CDFW veterinarians.

Given the mental dullness and its lack of fear around people, biologists and veterinarians suspected encephalitis – or inflammation of the brain – as the root cause of the bear’s problems. The neurological disorder has turned up increasingly in the Lake Tahoe Basin’s black bear population. A cause for this disorder has yet to be identified and currently there are no treatments.

At CDFW’s facilities, the female bear remained unsteady on its feet with an abnormal gait and mental dullness. Showing no signs of physical or mental improvement, the decision was made to euthanize her due to the grave prognosis for a return to normal function and release back to the wild.

A post-mortem examination to determine a cause of the physical and mental abnormalities was inconclusive. The examination showed no evidence of encephalitis or recent physical trauma but did find “degenerative changes in the brainstem.” Additionally, trace amounts of bromethalin were detected, revealing exposure to this neurotoxic rodenticide.

Still, relatively little is known about the potential effects of bromethalin in wildlife, and veterinarians were unable to determine whether it could have caused the degenerative changes in the brain or the physical and mental changes observed when the bear was alive.

CDFW biologists continue to monitor the three remaining “South Shore Four” bears in the wild. These bears are now confronting the latest threats to their survival and well-being – namely, the Caldor and Tamarack fires.

Categories: Disease, Neurological Disorders, Rehabilitation, Wildfire
  • September 29, 2020

Surely you remember the Kings Beach bear? You might recall him better as the "Safeway bear" or the "Chevron bear" or perhaps even the "birthday cake bear."

Throughout late August and early September, a link opens in new windowblack bear was caught on camera multiple times entering local businesses (Video) in the Kings Beach community on Lake Tahoe’s North Shore to take food. These videos made national news as the bear displayed no fear of people and disregarded attempts to shoo it out of the stores. Additionally, the bear was photographed crashing a family gathering and eating a birthday cake.

The bear was identified by the partial, unreadable tag in its left ear affixed many years ago along with DNA analysis. DNA collected from the scenes of the multiple business break-ins along with the same physical description indicated the same bear was responsible for each event.

The recent behavior of the bear classified it as a “habituated bear” under the CDFW’s bear policy. Habituated bears show no overt reactions to people as a result of repeated exposure with no negative consequences. Because the bear was hazed multiple times with no resulting changes to its behavior or response to humans, CDFW determined a different strategy was required.

CDFW conducted a trapping effort in early September and quickly captured a bear matching the physical description from these numerous conflicts. The bear was taken to CDFW’s Wildlife Investigations Lab near Sacramento for a thorough health and wellness evaluation by CDFW veterinarians. DNA samples also were taken to CDFW’s Wildlife Forensics Lab and confirmed that the bear’s DNA matched that gathered at the Kings Beach incidents.

The health and wellness evaluation revealed an old – more than 16 years old – male bear with a poorly healed injury on its left hind foot. Due to the advanced age of the bear and lack of available space, placement in a permanent wildlife facility or zoo was not an option. To keep tabs on the bear and help prevent any future conflicts, CDFW affixed a GPS tracking collar on the bear and released it in a large expanse of wild, suitable bear habitat, where the bear remains today. CDFW continues to monitor the bear’s whereabouts to evaluate his return to the wild.

link opens in new windowVIDEO: The Kings Beach bear is released into wild habitat while being hazed by bean bags.

Categories: Kings Beach

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