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More bears mean more strife at Lake Tahoe

The shooting death of a peaceable bear highlights the passions their growing presence arouses. Ask for permission to eliminate one and you're asking for threats and possible vandalism.

January 02, 2013|By Mike Anton, Los Angeles Times
  • A reward poster is stapled to a fence in South Lake Tahoe offering a reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of whoever killed the beloved Sunny the bear.
A reward poster is stapled to a fence in South Lake Tahoe offering a reward… (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles…)

HOMEWOOD, Calif. — She was born under a house on the west shore of Lake Tahoe and quickly became a beloved fixture in this rustic community.

She rambled through backyards and climbed into open windows to snack. She swam in the lake's impossibly blue water and sunned herself on the beach as if on an extended vacation.

Residents nicknamed her Sunny. She was one of Lake Tahoe's "celebrity bears" — animals so familiar, so seemingly at ease around humans that they've become de facto residents of this forested idyll where the boundary between wilderness and civilization has all but disappeared.

"She was the epitome of how bears and humans can coexist," said Ann Bryant, an animal rights activist here. "Until she was murdered."

The morning of July 30, Sunny was found dead on the beach, felled by a shotgun blast.

The killing infuriated Lake Tahoe's large and vocal community of bear lovers, who raised $35,000 for a reward leading to the arrest and conviction of Sunny's killer.

Others thought that wasn't enough.

When no arrest was made, the suspected shooter's name and address were posted on a Facebook page established by a bear advocate to shame businesses with unlocked and overflowing dumpsters.

Reaction was swift — and, at times, disturbing:

I hope the person who did this is not only prosecuted to the fullest, but suffers the same fate Sunny did.

Can we have open season on the person who shot the bear??

Burn his cabin down.

*

Early November, and Lake Tahoe is dozing. Boats are gone for the winter, the notorious summer traffic has ebbed and neighborhoods of vacation homes are silent as ghost towns.

The bears, though, are hard at work.

An adult black bear will consume upward of 25,000 calories a day to prepare for hibernation. That's a lot of berries and pine nuts. Or, in the case of Lake Tahoe's bears, a lot of dumpster diving.

More than a thousand bear complaints a year are reported to officials on the lake's California side alone. They break into homes to forage in refrigerators, at times surprising terrified residents. They den under porches and have learned to twist the tops off food jars. They make the trash-can exploits of the Southern California bruin nicknamed Glen Bearian look like the fumblings of an amateur.

"It's been an enormous evolutionary change," said Bryant, who runs the Bear League, a self-styled detachment of some 250 volunteers who respond to calls round the clock from residents who've had a bear encounter. "The bears living here with us are evolving far faster than we are. They've learned to take advantage of us. We haven't learned to coexist with them. And they're dying for it."

At any given time, there are between 500 and 1,500 black bears around the lake. In July, the Tahoe Daily Tribune reported that 2012 was shaping up to be a "perfect storm of bears." A mild winter meant more cubs, and the parched backcountry was forcing more bears to scrounge for food in populated areas.

At one resort, three bears were legally killed after they entered numerous cabins; a cafe was evacuated when a bear strolled in during dinner.

The killings — among the approximately 90 bears handed death sentences here by game officials since 2009 — angered bear lovers.

Those killings lit the fuse. Sunny's death turned the anger to fury.

*

To say Sunny's poaching has spawned conjecture, rumors and conspiracy theories is like saying Lake Tahoe is kind of deep.

After the shooting, suspicion immediately turned to the owner of a property near where Sunny bled to death. Game wardens found no physical evidence; the shotgun left no ballistics. The man whom they call "a person of interest" got a lawyer, left town and has refused to be interviewed.

People reported hearing shots fired at 11:30 p.m. — and at 6 a.m. It was said that blood was found on the man's property and that he baited Sunny; there's no evidence of either, authorities say. A video taken earlier by locals purportedly showing the man loading a shotgun on his porch while Sunny was in a tree is of such poor quality it's impossible to tell who the person is and what he's doing.

"It's still a very active investigation," said Lt. John Lawson of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. "But we need solid evidence. I've been trying to convey that to people — you can't arrest and convict somebody without evidence."

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.

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