Spring is bear season and the Sierra Nevada is bear country. How can we learn to live with this iconic Sierra wildlife? SL’s Matthew Bieker sat down with Ann Bryant, executive director of the BEAR League, to find out.
Where did the BEAR League come from? I moved to California 30 years ago and got involved with some wildlife rescue, and as time went on, people started recognizing that I was somebody they could bring injured wildlife to, orphan wildlife. Then a situation came up with some bears, and the neighborhood called on me and…the newspapers carried the story and people responded from all over the Tahoe Basin and said, ‘If you’ll jump in and be the go-to person and the lead on this, we’re all going to help you.’ So that’s what happened. We formed a group and started training people in all the neighborhoods around the whole Tahoe Basin about bears specifically, and we called it the BEAR League. Law enforcement jumped in and started referring calls to us and we grew from there. We went from three people back at the beginning to about 2,500 people now. We’re just nonprofit volunteers that care about wildlife, care about bears, and want to help our neighbors and our friends, our visitors and our vacationers.
So, why bears? Why was that something you wanted to be involved with? I knew that bears were being exploited. They were being mistreated. They were being lured into situations beyond their control due to human negligence and an ignorance and arrogance. And they were dying because of that. (For example,) there were no garbage ordinances. People could put out a trashcan, the wind could blow it over and a bear could come and get into it because they follow their noses, and people said, ‘Well, there’s a bear that got into my trashcan and I don’t like it.’ They could, at that time, call the Department of Wildlife and say, ‘I want you to kill this bear.’ And the Department of Wildlife would come and literally kill this bear for getting into their unsecured trash. So…we’ve worked on establishing ordinances for trash: You’ve got to secure it; you can’t put it out until the morning of (pick-up); you can’t leave it out there all week and then kill the animals who come to get into it because they’re just foraging. And then there were other laws that needed to be changed. A baby cub’s mother got into a trashcan, she was killed, and then the cub was killed because there was no place to take him. So we knew we needed bear cub rehab facilities in the state…and we worked on that. But we still have a long way to go.
We’d very much like our readers around Northern Nevada and in Northern California to have some knowledge, especially as bear season starts up this spring. What are some hard and fast facts about bears? First of all, where your readership is, there are no other bears but black bears. There are no grizzly bears. There are no Kodiak bears. There are no polar bears. There are only black bears. Even though they come in different colors—they’re brown, they’re gold, they’re red, they’re all different shades of those colors—they are called black bears. They are the most submissive and nonaggressive species of all bears on the Earth. Black bears are the easiest and the most comfortable for human beings to live in close proximity to. It’s very hard to live in close proximity to a polar bear. They’re carnivorous and they will eat you. Grizzly bears are aggressive and much more carnivorous, and the grizzly bear mother will kill you rather than tolerate you if she has cubs nearby. None of these things are true for black bears. So no one in your readership is going to be confronted with any bear other than a black bear, and no black bear has ever killed a single human being in all of Oregon, California or Nevada, in all of history.
So the first thing, obviously, people need to realize is they are not inherently dangerous if you’re doing the right thing. They’re not dangerous anyway, because they’ve never killed anybody. Let’s just grab California, for instance. Every year, human beings in California kill about 3,000 black bears from poaching, hunting, hitting them with their cars, shooting them because they’re scared of them, shooting them because they got into their fruit orchard. Although they are wild animals and although they are big and they have teeth and claws, they are not killers or we would have a lot of dead people in their wake, and we have not gotten a single one.
So what should people do if they see a bear? There are two different courses of action, and it depends on whether you see the bear in the woods or in your yard. If you see a bear in the woods, that’s where he belongs. Chances are you won’t see one there. If you don’t want to see one, then just make noise. Sing, whistle, talk to whoever you’re with. The bear is going to hear you coming a long time before you get along the trail to where he is, and he’s going to go hide. He’s going to go up a tree, he’s going to go hide behind some bushes. He’s going to be as still as he can until you walk by and you’re never going to know he’s there. If you do happen to see one in the woods, talk to him gently and calmly and say, ‘Hi, bear, it’s me. My name is Joe. I’m just going for a walk.’ Just calmly, calmly, calmly, I’m not here to hurt you. I’m respectful. Don’t approach him. Don’t go near him. Don’t try and pet him, keep talking gently and calmly. Don’t scream, don’t holler, don’t be aggressive and just calmly turn to the side and give him a wide berth and walk away, and he’s not going to do anything. If you approach him because you want a good picture, he’s probably going to slap the ground and warn you and say, ‘I’m afraid of you because you’re getting too close—please back away.’ Then respect that. If you’re foolish enough to continue to walk closer to him after he’s warned you because you want to get a better picture, then he might bluff-charge you, which means he’s going to come running at you to scare you and to bluff you into thinking that he’s going to attack you, but if you turn and run or if you stand there, he’s not going to follow through.
If you see a bear in your yard, that’s a different story. He knows that he has come into your home range…because the whole yard smells like you. Your ‘den’ is sitting right there and smells like you. He knows he’s trespassing. He’s pushing it, so if he’s snooping around rather than just passing through—it’s OK to just let him pass through and let him keep going—but if he’s digging around in your bird feeders, then you need to let him know, by being very territorial, that he’s not welcome. And you can do that by yelling at him, throwing rocks at him. Go up on the deck where you feel safe, but you want to let him know that you’re going to defend your home territory. That it’s yours. (Otherwise) he’s going to think, ‘Well, cool, then tomorrow I’ll go to these other people’s house.’ We don’t want to train our bears to think that it’s OK to hang out in someone’s little home range. So you want to make him feel unwelcome. You want to make him feel like you’re the boss. ‘Get out of here, you don’t belong here. I live here. My cubs are in the house. My food stash is in that refrigerator. You can’t have it.’ They get it, because that’s how they think…and they respect us. (But) if a bear comes into your yard and you’re on your deck and you get freaked out, and you run into the house and you hide under the bed, you have just told him, ‘I’m not going to defend my territory. I’m not the dominant animal here. I’m giving it to you. I’m going to run and hide in fear and you can have whatever you want. You can come into my kitchen and raid my refrigerator. You can crawl under my deck and take a nap there. You can go out and eat all the seed in my bird feeders. You can do whatever you want because I’m not going to defend it.’ What do you expect when the bear keeps coming back?
We want to then potentially say to our armed residents who might be reading this, they should resist that urge to go grab their gun because the bear isn’t a threat to them inside their homes and retaliating with a gun is unfair. If they do that, they’re probably going to go to jail, because it’s illegal to shoot a bear for coming in your yard just because you’re afraid or you don’t understand where you’ve chosen to live…I desperately want humans and animals to coexist in this world, especially in the forest where the animals have always been and we are coming into because we appreciate it. And I know from my childhood a lot of things people believe about wild animals are simply not true. They’re not out there to kill you and bite you and give you rabies—they’re just another one of the children of the Earth, as are we. We all live here. This is our home. This is our planet. We have to get along.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with me, Ann.