Campaign aims to keep the average bear wild

Posted: Friday, May 30, 2003

RENO, Nev. The ''Don't Feed the Bears'' routine that tried to keep Yogi and Boo-Boo from picnic baskets a generation ago is getting a makeover in California and the Sierra Nevada.

The California Department of Fish and Game launched a statewide campaign at Lake Tahoe on Tuesday that has bears and other wild animals preaching to people from bumper stickers, brochures and posters:

''Keep me wild. Stash your food and trash.''

California's black bear population has nearly doubled over the past decade to as many as 35,000, wildlife officials said, and those bears are bigger and hungrier.

That means they're increasingly running into trouble with humans as they ravage campground trash bins and neighborhood garbage cans from Lake Tahoe, through the Sierra and into Southern California. Some bears have been destroyed as a result.

''The bears learn where they can go for a quick meal,'' said Lorna Bernard, the state's bear campaign coordinator.

''Then the bears get nice and fat and the females have more cubs than when they would in lean times. So the problem is just feeding on itself, so to speak.''

In addition to bears, the program points to growing numbers of coyotes, mountain lions and deer along the Sierra foothills, where they come in conflict with growing numbers of people.

''It's a people problem, not a wildlife problem,'' said Banky Curtis, regional manager of the state agency's field office for the Sacramento Valley and Central Sierra.

''Wild animals naturally seek food wherever they can find it, and they're extremely good at it,'' said Curtis, a 30-year wildlife biologist.

Once wild animals become accustomed to sources of human food, they want more, and they lose their natural fear of humans, said Doug Updike, another senior state wildlife biologist.

''These powerful animals may do anything to get more easy pickings. People fear for their own safety and property and deadly conflicts occur,'' he said.

''People complain and the bear ends up dead,'' Bernard said.

Since 2000, 24 bears have been killed in the Tahoe Basin because of garbage-related incidents, a protection group said.

U.S. Forest Service officials who manage much of the land around Lake Tahoe praised the effort that extends to both sides of the California-Nevada state line.

''When you have some drought years, the bears tend to range out into human communities a little bit more,'' said Rex Norman, Forest Service spokesman in South Lake Tahoe, Calif.

''At the same time, human beings are moving into bear territory in ever increasing numbers.''

State officials began the campaign in advance of the busy Memorial Day weekend when visitors head to the outdoors.

''The bears are waking up right now and they are hungry,'' Bernard said.

Bernard said Tahoe was picked to kick off the campaign with newspaper and radio ads because there's ''already a lot of grass-roots support in this area for keeping their bears wild.''

The Tahoe Council for Wild Bears made up of 11 groups installed 130 bear-proof trash bins around Tahoe last week to reduce food sources.

''We already have local residents asking where they can get materials,'' said Bernard, who is encouraging them to put the bumper stickers on trash cans.

The effort began two years ago when the state agency hired a public relations firm and started gathering bear experts to focus on key messages.

''We're not a very well-funded agency so when we first scraped together the $100,000, we thought we were going to blanket the state,'' Bernard said.

''But we quickly learned $100,000 doesn't go very far.''

They're encouraging local groups to download materials to print their own posters and stickers from their Web site: www.keepmewild.org

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