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Wildlife experts say harassing bears for photos and approaching their young cubs could end in a bloody tragedy for both parties

In what is perhaps a sad testament to state of modern mankind, rangers with the U.S. Forest Service have issued a bizarre plea in Nevada -- stop taking selfies with local bears and their cubs.
 
The warning sounds laughable, but the rangers are dead serious.  The local bear population around Nevada's popular Lake Tahoe resort area near the Californian border is growing uneasy at the growing trend of noisy humans approaching them with smartphones in hand with the brazen intent to involve the large predators in unwanted photography sessions.
 
I. Typically Shy, Black Bears Can Prove Powerful Attackers if Provoked
 
Fortunately the bears in the area are "only" American black bears (Ursus americanus), a medium size bear that pales in comparison to the massive Grizzly (Ursus arctos ssp.).  Grizzlies average 130–200 kg (290–440 lb) for adult females and 180–360 kg (400–790 lb) for adult males; the average shoulder height is 102 cm (3.35 ft).  Large males can reach up to 680 kg (1,500 lb) and 1.5 metres (4.9 ft) at the shoulder.  And to boot they're cited by wildlife researchers as being more aggressive to humans [PDF].
 
Brown bears (Ursus arctos) are equally giant, reaching similar heights and weights.  Brown bears once roamed the woods and mountains of Nevada, but are believed to have vanished from the California-Nevada corridor around 1920, amid heavy hunting efforts.
 
Today the only bear in the Sierra Nevada mountains is the black bear.  Black bears typically range from "mere" 57 lb (126 kg) -- about the weight of a large dog -- up to 250 kg (551 lb) for adult males and 41–170 kg (90–375 lb) for adult females.  Black bears aren't exactly giants size-wise either.  They're only 120 to 200 cm (47 to 79 in; or about 4 to 6 and 1/2 feet) long, typically and are 70 to 105 cm (28 to 41 in.; 2 to 3 and 1/2 feet) tall at the shoulder.

Grizzly vs. Black Bear
Black bears (left) are shy, unlike their North American brethren, the Grizzly (right), who are known for vicious attacks. [Image Source: Alberta Parks and Recreation]

But their small size is deceptive.
 
The bears have been known to on occasion flip boulders weighing as much as 150 kg (330 lb) with one paw [source].  And they're fast -- quicker than just about any human, capable of running at speeds of 25–30 mph (40–50 km/h) when they're so inclined.
 
The good news is that while they're cunning thieves known to steal game that cougars have killed and food from campers alike, black bears generally try very hard to avoid confrontations with humans.  The bad news is that most times when humans were attacked tended to involve them attempting to feed hungry bears [source].  In some incidents a person attempted to feed a cub only to unwittingly provoking defensive instincts from a mother bear in the process.

Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe is home to 200 to 300 Black Bears. [Image Source: Lake Tahoe Chambers]

According to Stephen Herrero, an expert on historical bear attacks, despite their generally shy nature, black bears are capable of defending themselves ruthlessly in extreme circumstances.  He estimates that 23 people were killed by black bears in North America between 1900 and 1980.

II. Woman is Attacked After Feeding Bears

The situation around Lake Tahoe seems like a ticking time bomb.  People are feeding bears in an attempt to take their picture.  And as hard as federal wildlife officials try to convince the photographers of the foolhardiness of their ways, many continue to defiantly try to snap selfies with the bears.

Making the situation worse this year, a drought has struck the region leaving many of the bears struggling to find water.  Clever as ever, the bears have found a new trick -- foraging for water in human towns.  They call these lumbering refugees "drought bears".

Drought Bear
Rampant drought has pushed some bears to lurk around towns, looking for a drink.
[Image Source: NDOW]

Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW) spokesman Chris Healy comments:

We're calling a lot of these 'drought' bears.  These are bears that want to be wild, they are doing their best to be wild and trying to stay up in the hills, but they just don't have any food... We are doing all we can to give them a break. Our goal is to keep them alive and wild.

Describing a recent incident in which a bear with a history of trying to make contact with humans was tranquilized ("darted") and later euthanized in Reno, Nevada, he recalls:

It just was not acting wild and it was a very dangerous bear.  It was climbing on top of cars and trying to enter homes. It was just way too familiar with people.

Despite that claim, Nevada game officials have come under fire from wildlife activists in July, over claims they were killing too many bears.  So far they've killed several of the "drought bears" that became too persistent and continued to try to break into gated communities to find water.  While there's tens of thousands of black bears in Calif., in Nevada the lumbering scavengers are far more scarce, with an estimated population between 200 and 300 adults [source].  Given the small numbers, the killings are provoking plenty of debate.

black bear prowling
NDOW shared this picture to illustrate how "brazen" the bears are getting.  Here a 3 year old black bear prowls a private tourist beach, disrupting sunbathers. [Image Source: NDOW]

The Bear League, a wildlife advocacy in the region, is among the groups crying foul.  Its leader, Ann Bryant told the Associated Press in July:

NDOW is putting down way too many bears.  We don't agree killing is the answer. It takes away the respect for bears and that is what people need to live with them.

It's hard to say who bears the blame in these killings or whether there might have been alternatives.  But one thing everyone seems to be able to agree upon -- the people feeding the bears and take pictures with them are only making matters worse.
 
In August a Lake Tahoe woman was attacked by a black bear.  Authorities report that the woman had been luring bears to her house and had fed at least four of them in the last year.  Of those four, local wildlife officials or cars subsequently killed all but one.  It appeared that the conditioning the woman gave them led them to further explore human settlements.  This exploration proved deadly when they were hit by cars or when local authorities felt forced to kill the creatures in an attempt to safeguard the public.
 
Lt. Patrick Foy of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife told the Associated Press that the woman had just fed one of the bears and was walking back to her house when it struck her from behind.  She survived the attack, but reportedly suffered wounds and scratches on her should, back and leg.  Lt. Foy noted that local wildlife officials and police had issued the woman several warnings, which she willfully disregarded, continuing to feed the creatures.
 
NDOW spokesman Chris Healy says that a mother bear the woman had been feeding was euthanized by officials after it broke into cars looking for food and exhibited "bold" behavior.  Left behind, the mother bear's two cubs were both struck by cars and killed in the weeks that followed.  Mr. Healy says its ironic that many of the same activists that blame his organization for putting bears down are acting in a way that leads the bears to their death.
 
There are reports of a Tahoe woman from Incline Village named Jane Green who was warned by police.  It is unclear if this is the same person involved in the recent deaths and the attack.

Jane Green feeds bear
An Incline Village resident, Jane Green, brazenly feeds a bear.  She was warned by police.  Similar feedings led to the death of three bears, including two cubs last month. [Image Source: Tahoe Tribune]

Comments Healy:

The people who are doing the feeding are the ones who are killing these bears.  [Some activists think these are] benign creatures that don't do any harm, when in fact, they are wild animals that are capable of doing harm.  When you are feeding them, you are hastening the day that one or more of those bears is going to be killed.

And for once, some of the activists are on the wildlife officials' side.  Ann Bryant of The Bear League comments:

To lure that many bears into a residential area and make all those bears reliant on it is horrible.  It's a crime against nature.

Police are now considering whether to charge the woman with a misdemeanor charge of feeding wildlife, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

III. On the Hunt for Bear Selfies, Tourists are Chasing Beasts Into Woods

But if local authorities didn't have their hands full enough with unbalance locals who selfishly try to lure the creatures into regular visits with food -- a rather old problem -- they now have a brand new and even more bizarre problem on their hands: bear selfies.

Bear selfies
Bear selfies have become an international sensation.  Here food and travel blogger Jo Bell shows off proper framing of a bear selfie at a nature park in Bern, Switzerland. [Image Source: Roots and Toots]

The Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit (a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service team) is one of the organizations tasked with monitoring and regulating wildlife activities in the region.  Not surprisingly, it was among the first to notice the alarming new fad.  Spokeswoman Lisa Herron, comments to the Reno Gazette-Journal:

We've had mobs of people that are actually rushing toward the bears trying to get a 'selfie' photo.  It is very possible [that we may have to close down local parks], yes.  It is presenting a safety issue. We are afraid someone is going to get attacked.  We are telling people they need to stay on the trails and they need to stay away form the bears.  If a bear has a mind to it can run very fast.

Reportedly people, desparate to photograph themselves with the black bears, have taken to chasing after the creatures into woods and running across traffic in busy streets like California State Route 89 in an attempt to snap a shot.

A tourist at Lake Tahoe's Taylor Creek Trails seemed to have a different viewpoint in an interview with ABC News.  Manutsawee Buapet implied that state wildlife officials with NDOW and federal wildlife officials with the USDA-FS aren't doing enough to keep the legions of tourists flocking to the region under control.

She commented:

There were like 30 people taking pictures of themselves with the bears.  I was concerned. You never know what’s going to happen with bears, but people just stuck around.  They weren’t scared at all of the people, some parents were trying to keep the kids away.

But that didn't stop her from getting a nice shot of what looks to be a bear cub.

Black Bear cub
Manutsawee Buapet complained to ABC News about the lack of wildlife officials to keep the tourist crowds under control.  But that didn't stop her from snapping this shot of a bear cub. [Image Source: Manutsawee Buapet]

As the Instagram and Facebook, Inc. (FB) bear selfies pile up, beleagured park officials have offered tourists an ultimatum.  Stop the photography, or the park will close, they say.  But it remains to be seen if even a closeure can keep the rabid vacation goers at bay.

 

Chose a good time to go see the #spawning #salmon at #taylorcreek got to see a #blackbear #feasting #bear

A photo posted by sssmayhem (@sssmayhem) on



Local wildlife officials have since July resorted to an extreme solution -- so-called "aversion therapy" in which they shoot the lumbering beasts with rubber bullets, and send trained dogs chasing after them.  The goal is to make the bears afraid of humans.  But like people, some bears just can't seem to learn to leave well enough alone.

Reports have even emerged that local students at Sierra Nevada College have developed a bizarre twist on the bear selfie.  Luring the bears with food, they allegedly have made a game out of trying to spank the bears on the butt, as their friends snap photos of them.

Sierra Nevada College
A Sierra Nevada College student feeds a black bear from his dorm.  Students have developed a penchant for playing a bizarre prank where they try to lure bears with food and then spank them.
[Image Source: Sierra Nevada College Eagle Eye(left) / Getty Images (right)]

The practice has drawn criticism, and school officials have been trying to crack down on the pranks.  The local bears are taking it in stride.  They've even taking to breaking into students' rooms and raiding their minifridges.  The bad news for everyone is that these impromptu raids -- prompted surely by the students' luring and perverse pranks -- may lead to more euthanasias in coming months.

Kokanee Salmon
Tourists are assailing the bears seeking selfies as the bears try to fill up on fish for the long winter.
[Image Source: Fish With JD]

So as the black bears take their annual trek to local streams looking to feast on kokanee salmon, which make their annual swim through the Taylor Creek, they'll be navigating a bizarre sight of the 21st century -- starry eyed tourists chasing thoughtlessly after them with smartphones.

Sources: Reno Gazette-Journal, Sierra Nevada College Eagle's Eye, ABC News





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