The spring season is well underway in the Tahoe Basin and with warmer weather and fewer COVID-19 restrictions many campgrounds are opening, and visitor numbers are increasing. With this activity comes more human food, more garbage, and more people sharing space with bears.
This is also a time when some mother bears (sows) have very small cubs of the year with them. These cubs were born in January or February and will likely be following mom and learning how to forage and be a wild bear for the next year to year and a half. Other sows have yearlings with them that were born in winter dens last year and are about to be cut loose by mom so she can search for a mate for the summer breeding cycle. These yearlings are well equipped to make it on their own, and their size will vary.
Cubs of the year are dependent on their mothers and will hopefully be taught how to forage on natural vegetation, including grass, berries, grubs, and other wild bear foods. The sows may be protective of the cubs and people need to give them space. Never get in between a sow and her cubs. If you see a cub of the year alone, or up a tree for safety, the sow may not want to leave the area so back away and give them room to reunite.
This time of year, wildlife agencies receive many calls from people concerned that they have found an orphaned cub when they are actually seeing a yearling that is safely on its own. A good rule of thumb in knowing the difference is to look at the size of the bear. If the bear is the size of a cat (around 10-15 pounds), that is a new cub of the year. Chances are the cub’s mom is somewhere nearby or may have put the cub up a tree while she goes to forage. Keep an eye on the cub and if you do not see mom after a couple of hours, call the appropriate state wildlife agency so they can send a wildlife expert out to assess the situation.
On occasion, there are known situations where a cub has truly been orphaned, which could result from a vehicle strike, or other cause of death of the sow. The proper state authorities, California Department of Wildlife (CDFW) or the Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW), should be called to evaluate the situation and safely transport the cub for evaluation and rehabilitation. Picking up a cub too soon or while mom is just around the corner can do a lot more harm than good. If the bear is the size of a medium-sized dog (45+ pounds) then it is a yearling, and it is perfectly normal for it to be on its own. If you’re not sure, don’t hesitate to call the wildlife experts at CDFW, California State Parks or NDOW to ask.
Don’t teach these young bears to be comfortable around people. If they have gotten too close, make noise and try to scare them away so they don’t feel comfortable and want to stay. While it’s fun to see bears and even take pictures and videos, you’re telling the bear that it’s alright to be close to you. Bears are smart and acquire learned behaviors based on their experiences. If they have a negative, scary encounter with a human, chances are they will try to avoid them in the future. Allowing bears to become comfortable around people can lead to unwanted activity including breaking into cars and houses or approaching people who are eating outdoors. It is illegal to feed bears both directly and indirectly by allowing them access to garbage or food.
Visitors will steadily increase throughout the busy summer season. Be vigilant with food and trash storage whether at home, the beach, campgrounds, picnic areas or trailheads. Enjoy wildlife from a distance, and don’t attempt to handle young bears. With everyone’s help we can keep Tahoe bears wild.
To report human-bear conflicts: In California, contact the CDFW at 916-358-2917, or report online using the Wildlife Incident Reporting (WIR) system at apps.wildlife.ca.gov/wir. Non-emergency wildlife interactions in California State Parks can be reported to public dispatch at 916-358-1300. In Nevada, contact NDOW at 775-688-BEAR (2327). For general questions, contact agency Public Information Officers: Peter Tira, CDFW; Ashley Sanchez, NDOW; or Lisa Herron, USDA Forest Service. If the issue is an immediate threat, call the local sheriff’s department or 9-1-1.
For more information on peacefully coexisting with bears, visit TahoeBears.org. TahoeBears.org is made possible through funding from NDOW.
This collaborative agency effort includes California State Parks, CDFW, El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office, Nevada State Parks, NDOW, Placer County Sheriff’s Office, Tahoe Regional Planning Agency and the USDA Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit (LTBMU).