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More bears mean more strife at Lake Tahoe

By Mike Anton, Los Angeles Times Published: January 7, 2013

The bar is considerably lower in the anonymity of the Internet. The threats made in the aftermath of Sunny's death are not taken lightly in Lake Tahoe.

It's not uncommon for people who have sought state approval to have a bear killed to receive an onslaught of threats. Homes have been vandalized. Even complaining about a problem bear to game wardens - who some see as the enemy - can bring scorn.

“People have been approached and yelled at in grocery stores simply for reporting bear activity,” said Placer County Sheriff's Capt. Jeff Ausnow. “They'll say, ‘You can't do that because they're going to kill it.' This is a very emotional issue here.”

Bryant's cluttered cabin in the woods is a menagerie of wounded and orphaned wildlife. Birds and chipmunks. Squirrels and raccoons. A porcupine, the victim of a car accident, relaxes on a shelf.

“I grew up around wildlife,” Bryant, 61, said of her childhood in Minnesota. “I feel like I can look into their faces and communicate with them. They have as much right to life as we do.”

Game officials applaud her work educating the public on how to secure their homes and what to do if they encounter a bear. (“Make noise. Pound your feet. Scream like you frickin' mean it,” she says.)

With a long blond mane and forceful nature, Bryant is no bear whisperer. She responds to bear calls with a paintball gun and a shotgun loaded with rubber buckshot. Bears are quick learners; a few body blows, she says, can do wonders to put the fear of humans back into them.

She also has no compunction about getting into someone's grill if she feels a bear is in danger. Her ability to work up a lather no doubt played a role in landing “Blonde vs. Bear,” a three-part reality show that aired on Animal Planet in 2011.

“For a lot of people, anything a bear does to cause them an inconvenience is a reason that bear should die,” said Bryant, whose work has made her a polarizing figure, both beloved and hated. “They have no regard for nature or wildlife and they want it all to be gone. And whenever we speak up on the bears' behalf, we become the enemies.”

But Bryant says she has no tolerance for vigilantism, even though the Bear League also published the name, address and phone number of Sunny's suspected shooter on its Facebook page. “All I want is for him to be brought to justice,” she says. “I don't want his house to burn down.”

Reports taken by Bear League volunteers read like a police blotter - lots of breaking and entering, vandalism, prowling and loitering.

Some callers are head-scratchingly clueless, such as the woman who reported she was “mad, angry about buying a house in Tahoe. No one told her about the bears. Had a break in. Not happy.”

Others are clearly fed up, such as the man who reported that he tried to secure his home but it “didn't work” - a bear leveled a garage door and cleaned out a refrigerator.

“Has gun for next time he comes back,” the report reads.

Standing in the way of detente is disagreement over what constitutes a problem bear.

“I don't care if you leave your doors and windows open. If you have a 500-pound bear who's comfortable with walking into somebody's home - that's not good,” said Carl Lackey, a Nevada Department of Wildlife biologist. “That bear has no fear of humans. That bear needs to be killed.”

Lackey, like Bryant, has become a lightning rod in the debate over bears. He has gotten “a death threat or two” over the years, he says.

But he and Bryant have much in common. Both have a deep respect for bears. Both say humans are the root problem. But both also concede that coexistence would require a level of voluntary mass behavior that would rival a migrating flock of birds.

“People up here don't want to put up with property damage. But at the same time, they don't want to prepare either,” Lackey said.

Unlike grizzly bears, black bears rarely attack humans. Since 1900, only 14 people have been killed by a black bear in the continental United States, according to a study published last year in the Journal of Wildlife Management. None were in California or Nevada.

“We've never had a death,” Lackey said. “But it's coming. I just hope it doesn't happen on my watch.”

Bryant takes a similarly bleak view. Not of nature, but of human nature.

“I think a human is going to hurt a human before a bear does.”

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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