Peter Fimrite, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, January 10, 2010
(01-10) 04:00 PST Incline Village, Nev. --
A gigantic, bullet-scarred black bear with a hankering for human food and a knack for breaking and entering has been terrorizing homeowners on the north shore of Lake Tahoe and deftly outmaneuvering gun-toting rangers, bear dogs and traps.
The burly bruin - a male that weighs an estimated 700 pounds, roughly twice the poundage of the average adult black bear - has broken into and ransacked dozens of homes in Incline Village since last summer, causing tens of thousands of dollars in damage and more than a few sleepless nights.
Wildlife officials have tried everything, but the food junkie apparently knows a bear trap when he sees one, shakes off bullets like they were mosquito bites, and keeps coming back for more.
"He's busted into probably 40 or 50 homes," said Carl Lackey, a bear biologist for the Nevada Department of Wildlife. "I've never seen anything like that before."
Trappers plan to kill the bear if they ever catch him, prompting some animal lovers to rally to the muscular mammal's defense.
Save or kill?
"We offered to capture him and put him in a wildlife sanctuary where he'd have about 100 acres to roam free, but the Nevada Department of Wildlife said they don't want to do that," said Ann Bryant, executive director of the BEAR (Bear Education Aversion Response) League. "They'd rather capture and kill him."
A bear habituated to humans is dangerous because it is more likely to attack when cornered, Lackey explained. This bear, he said, has been shot on two occasions while breaking into homes. One of the bullets reportedly bounced off his head.
"Relocation doesn't work. They come right back no matter how far away you take them," Lackey said. "If they do stay where you put them, a bear that has been breaking into homes is going to continue to do it. How would you feel if we relocated a bear like this near your home?"
The ursine prowler, which some have taken to calling Bubba, has learned how to smash out panels on garage doors and rummage through garbage and garage refrigerators. He has a tendency to barge in long after supper time.
Bubba at the fridge
Marianne Lyons, 68, of Nevada City, was alone in a back bedroom at her son's Incline Village house last summer when a "huge bear" busted into the garage, popped open the fridge and began feasting on frozen meat and other goodies. The behemoth sauntered nonchalantly away when animal control officers came, Lyons said, but returned after they left.
"This happened every hour on the hour until 4 a.m. He would come in, get what he wanted and leave. I was ready to jump out the window," Lyons said. "I just had this feeling he was going to come barreling into the house any minute. I have never been more scared."
Lackey said one resident reported shooting the bear right between the eyes with a .44 Magnum after the hungry giant lifted a sliding-glass door off the tracks and started toward him. The bullet glanced off and sent the bear whirling around the kitchen, and a second shot prompted him to scramble out the back door, according to local newspaper accounts.
'Scars on its face'
A Diamond Peak, Nev., resident said he shot the bear in the back with a .30-30 rifle when the animal charged him just after Thanksgiving.
"I've seen bears before, but this was the biggest bear I've ever seen," said the man, who did not want to be identified out of fear that animal lovers would harass him. "I can tell you this thing was nasty looking, with scars on its face and a gash on its neck."
Lackey said the bear is unusually smart. He has eluded the Karelian Bear Dogs that were put on his trail and waltzes right by bear traps. He even knows the garbage pickup dates in certain neighborhoods and routinely shows up to feast when cans are full, Lackey said.
The bear often leaves a humongous, smelly deposit as a kind of calling card.
"He actually broke into my garage three different times," said Bill Philpott, whose garage on Pelton Lane in the Mill Creek subdivision was first punched open for an apparent look-see at the end of October and then smashed completely three days later.
"I have a refrigerator in the garage. He opened it up, drank a gallon of orange juice, opened the freezer above and munched two frozen pizzas and snacked on frozen chicken," Philpott said. "He broke all the shelves and racks out of the refrigerator, bit into some fruit punch and squirted it all over everywhere, then dragged the trash can outside and took a crap the size of a basketball on the front lawn."
Philpott replaced the garage door in November, only to have the bear tear it down again.
Plenty of bears
Problem bears are not unusual in the Lake Tahoe area, where 350 or so bruins compete for food. Black bears are rarely dangerous to people - no one has been killed by one in California in the past 100 years - but problems can develop when the carnivores learn to associate an easy food supply with humans, according to experts. Such bears rarely hibernate and tend to be more aggressive.
Bubba hasn't been seen in about three weeks, the longest respite since summer, but Lackey is confident the big bruin is still around, readying himself for another raid.
"Bears like this continue to feed year-round," Lackey said. "That's how you get these 600- to 700-pound bears when they are normally 350 to 400 pounds. At this point there is no point in putting out traps. We'll wait until we get a call saying he is in the area and we'll try to catch him."
E-mail Peter Fimrite at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page C - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle