Spilled garbage near trash bins and receptacles at a popular Lake Tahoe beach is prompting outrage among bear advocates and action by Nevada State Parks officials.
The umbrage over sloppy trash disposal caught on camera at Sand Harbor, a management unit within Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park, is happening during the park’s busiest season for human and bear visitors.
Bear advocates say exposed trash at Sand Harbor is especially egregious because the park is also the site of repeated human-bear encounters, which can be harmful to bears.
“We have a big problem with that,” said Jennifer Simeo of Reno.
Simeo, who said she is affiliated with Nevada Wildlife Alliance, forwarded photos she said came from the park and showed trash sitting on top of bins and strewn about the ground. She said they were taken July 8 and July 15.
Other photos from Colleen McCarthy of Truckee shot the morning of July 15 depict similar conditions.
“They are not cleaning up, and it is kind of a bear buffet up there,” Simeo said.
Recent wayward garbage also caught the attention of park supervisor Jay Howard.
He said the park has already changed the way shifts are structured so rangers would be available to keep an eye on the trash areas until 8:30 p.m. on weekends. Also, Howard said he and another employee who live in the park make a final daily check at about 10 or 10:30 p.m.
“I agree 100 percent that it is unacceptable,” Howard said. “That is why I wanted to start running these later shifts.”
Bears getting into trash is a problem with a long history at the state park, which sees more than 800,000 visitors annually, the vast majority of them during June, July and August.
Several years ago, Howard applied for and received a grant through the state’s license plate program that covered the cost of replacing traditional trash receptacles with bear-resistant models.
The change dramatically reduced the problem, but the photos Simeo and others distributed online show it can still be an occasional issue.
“We do see people from time to time piling trash on top of Dumpsters, or there might be trash bags too big to fit in the enclosures,” Howard said.
In addition to nightly trash roundups and bear resistant garbage containers, Lake Tahoe Nevada is the only park in the state system with its own garbage truck, which allows park workers to make multiple daily trips to the transfer station if needed.
The park also posts signs written in English and Spanish asking people to use bear resistant containers for food and to use the provided trash bins.
Robert Mergell, deputy administrator of Nevada State Parks, said, “the main issue Sand Harbor staff now faces is garbage being left on top of garbage receptacles.”
Mergell and Howard said the parks system is also working with the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival to address post-event garbage issues. The festival has its own trash bins, which have steel lids that are chained and locked.
“We know we are going to have bears,” Howard said. “What we don’t want to see is habituated bears and trash bears.”
Bear advocates were especially angry about the photos because the park has also been the site of recent bear captures by the Nevada Department of Wildlife, including one that resulted in a dead bear.
In early June the Nevada Department of Wildlife euthanized a bear that exhibited dangerous behavior by raiding a food cooler in an open-top vehicle, showing little aversion to humans who attempted to scare it away and making multiple, daytime forays into the busiest part of the park.
Earlier this month, wildlife officials trapped and relocated another bear that had been poking around the park. They set another trap at the park in case the relocated bear returns or another ventures into the area.
Carl Lackey, an NDOW biologist, said euthanizing the bear was necessary because of its repeated trips into the crowded park and unwillingness to leave -- despite efforts by park rangers, state troopers and game wardens to scare it off.
Lackey said there is no way to stop bears from moving through the park, as it is in the heart of prime bear habitat, but people can do a better job making sure the animals don’t get into any trouble while they’re there.
“(Bears) will move through the park, and if they find food, they will get into it,” Lackey said. “If they don’t find food, they will move on.”
A last resort
Still, bear advocates haven’t been satisfied with state government policy on handling bears.
A recently created Facebook group calls on people to boycott Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park because, one poster stated, of a “kill the bear first, then ask questions later” approach.
It’s a notion NDOW spokesman Chris Healy said doesn’t match reality.
“It really is ludicrous to think people get into the wildlife business to kill bears,” Healy said. “It is the last thing we want to do.”
Euthanizing bears is a last resort, after removing food sources such as trash, relocation and aversion tactics have failed and a bear has shown a propensity for dangerous behavior, such as breaking into buildings or vehicles and a lack of fear of humans.
NDOW is the agency that's responsible under state law for dealing with problem bears. That includes taking action to remove and relocate bears before they escalate from foraging for trash to behavior that can result in property damage or injury, Healy said.
Records on bear handling incidents in Nevada show being struck by cars is the most common cause of bear mortality in the state, with more than 209 fatal car strikes since 2006.
During that span, there were 93 bears euthanized for public safety reasons. The vast majority of living bears NDOW handles, either for research or removal purposes, are released without any harm to the animal.
“The facts of the matter do not support the statements that are made,” Healy said in response to the Boycott Sand Harbor Facebook page. “We don’t kill every bear we handle -- far from it.”