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An unbearable problem

Bears got used to food handouts from a town's residents. Now they're breaking into homes.

September 03, 2008|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

PINE MOUNTAIN CLUB, CALIF. — It's one of the oldest truisms in the forest: Please don't feed the bears. But in many communities across California, that's exactly what's happening, sometimes with deadly consequences for the bears.

In the secluded Kern County enclave of Pine Mountain Club, Susie Kramer used to toss table scraps off the deck. For years, deer, raccoons, foxes and a coyote she nicknamed Wiley feasted on the garbage buffet.

"I thought I was doing the right thing," said Kramer, who moved to Pine Mountain Club with her husband, Brad, from Santa Clarita eight years ago.

Then the bears showed up. And they wouldn't go away.

Kramer no longer chucks her trash. But some people here, knowingly or unwittingly, have been feeding the bears.

This year the mountain community has experienced a surge of "break-ins" -- black bears barging into houses or going through open doors. Up in the Lake Tahoe area, the Bear League, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting bears, reports that it gets between five and 20 calls a day about bears entering homes.

Experts say the increased activity has partly been caused by wildfires that have ravaged bear habitat. But also to blame are humans, who have helped raise generations of trash-addicted bears. In response, wildlife advocates are stepping up efforts to educate people about how to coexist with bears.

"They're going from Mama's milk to Grandma's garbage," said Elizabeth Bolden, co-founder of http://http: www.pmcbearawareness.com/index.php "> www.pmcbearawareness.com/index.php , a group launched in Pine Mountain Club two years ago.

Bear anecdotes abound in this community of about 2,900 households roughly 70 miles north of Los Angeles, where the forest envelops homes built on large lots. According to Bolden, one resident left chunks of watermelon and cantaloupe on the side of a road.

But few folks are willing to admit what they are doing.

"The black bear situation up here was don't ask, don't tell, and the black bear was the big white elephant right in the middle of town," Bolden said.

For the Kramers, self-described animal lovers who rescue dogs as a hobby, the mother bear and two cubs that showed up in their yard were a novelty at first.

Once, a distraught cub clung to a tree, trapped by one of the Kramers' golden retrievers yapping below. Susie Kramer grabbed the cub -- experts say never do this -- and pushed it over the yard fence. She thought the traumatic experience would keep the bears away.

Then one day she looked out at her deck.

"There was Mama Bear on one side of the glass sliding door, and my dogs on the other," Kramer said.

The bear eventually took off. But the Kramers knew they had a problem. They hung nail-studded planks to trees near their home and attached electrified cattle wire to their fence.

The bears would "get shocked, and rip the fence down," Brad Kramer said.

So the couple contacted Bolden.

The Kramers had cut down on tossing scraps; at Bolden's urging, they stopped the practice altogether. They also bought a bear-proof trash can and an air horn to frighten the bears away. They used a nonlethal paintball gun to blast the bears when they got too close.

But other neighbors continue to leave out food, Kramer said, and the bear and her cubs were shot after entering a home.

Today, Susie Kramer feels terrible.

"I was actually giving the bear a death sentence," she said. "I thought I was loving them by feeding them."

She hopes others will learn from her mistake, as does Bolden, whose Bear Aware group is pushing an education campaign in this upscale community. As part of that effort, Bear League founder Ann Bryant recently came to town to offer advice to a standing-room-only audience at the clubhouse.

Bryant's group started 10 years ago in Homewood, on the west shore of Lake Tahoe, after the area experienced a sudden surge in bear visits -- largely because of human behavior. This year, Bryant has given presentations in at least 50 California communities. And she has about 30 talks scheduled.

Last month, Bryant spoke at the Morongo Band of Mission Indians reservation near Palm Springs. It turned out that someone had been hiking into the woods for years and lovingly leaving pies for the bears.

When the bear-feeder died, five bears missed their grub and started coming to town.

Back at Pine Mountain Club, Bryant tried to dispel the myth that bears are "man-eating monsters." She called them submissive and "nothing more than scared big chipmunks."

(In August, a Kern County woman was injured and her dog killed by a bear; Bryant suggests it was probably startled or felt threatened.)

When bears appear ready to charge, they are usually bluffing, Bryant said. And when their noses drip, it's their way of crying. To that the audience ooh-ed and aah-ed.

But the mood changed when officials from the Department of Fish and Game sought to explain the agency's policies on destroying bears and issuing permits to residents to legally kill a bear.

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