Bear trouble

When I was growing up, there was a cafe located in a log cabin on the west side of town. It was popular with truckers in the days before the Interstate highway provided a way to go around the town. After slowing to 25 mph to get through the town, the large parking area gave drivers an easy place to park and go inside for a hearty meal. We didn’t eat in cafes very often, but occasionally there might be a chance to have a meal there. On the wall of the cafe there were several impressive animal mounts, including the head of a large bear with a significant scar across its face.

There were nearly as many stories about that bear as there were stories about how the Crazy mountains got their name. Looking back, I realize that we had no way of knowing which stories were true and which were fictional.

My home town is directly north of Yellowstone National Park. However, there is no road that goes directly into the park from our town. You have to go either east or west to get to a highway that enters the park at its northeast or northwest corner. Bears, however, don’t bother with the highways, and it was common for bears that had been seen in Yellowstone to show up in the Boulder valley south of town.

Watching bears used to be part of a visit to Yellowstone National Park. I remember when there were bleachers set up at the garbage dump near Old Faithful Lodge. People would head to the bleachers just before sundown to watch the bears come in to eat from the human garbage dumped there. Old scarface was a regular at the dump and became large from eating the human food scraps. If you compare the amount of work of collecting wild berries and scraping ants out of a log with the relative ease of picking human food waste from a garbage dump, you can understand how the bears at the dump grew heavier than those left to their natural food sources. The bears would fight and scrape over desirable scraps and I suspect that the big bear got its face slashed open by the sharp claws of another bear at some point.

After several incidents where tourists were injured trying to capture pictures of themselves with bears, it was decided to stop the bear feeding at the dump and haul the garbage far away to a landfill where it was buried. The bears were trapped and hauled up near the top of the Slew Creek Divide. From there, most of the bears returned to the Old Faithful area in time. And when a bear is captured in a culvert trap it learns not to go into culverts again, so some of the bears avoided future trapping. They also became more naturally shy around humans and returned to foraging in the forest for their food. A few of those bears, however, made their way over the divide and worked their way down the Boulder valley towards our town.

According to legend, Old Scarface, a lover of human food, learned to break into cabins and homes in the valley in search of human food. A bear can break through a door or window without injury and the bear got good at raiding cupboards and freezers for food. A hunt for the bear ensued and there are plenty of stories of the adventures and misadventures of the people, including a Forest Service ranger who got scared at dusk, shot at what he thought was a bear, killed a horse and was re-assigned to duty in the Florida Everglades. At some point, however, the bear was killed and ended up as a stuffed mount on the wall of the cafe.

I thought of Old Scarface recently when I read about Hank the Tank. Hank the Tank is a 500 pound black bear that has been raiding homes in the Lake Tahoe area this year. He has grown so comfortable around humans and so adept at breaking through garage doors, patio doors and other entrances to human homes that he has skipped hibernation entirely this winter and continues to eat his way through vacation homes. Police have used non-lethal methods in an attempt to scare the bear away. Other bears will run at the sound of sirens, or when pelted with bean bags, or when tasers are dry fired, making a noise that bears don’t like. Hank, however, seems to ignore those insults and goes about in his search for high caloric food. He likes leftover pizza, ice cream and eats a lot of trash. His burglary record has now topped more than 40 homes entered and officials have received over 150 calls reporting troubles with the bear.

I’ve seen quite a few bears in my time, but I’ve never seen one as big as Hank the Tank. 500 pounds is a lot of bear. I know that a 500-pound bear wouldn’t fit in the kind of bear traps that they used to use in Yellowstone to trap the bears there, even if it was baited with pizza and ice cream. I’ve seen a couple of pictures of the bear with the dark coat and light muzzle. Hank the Tank is a good name for such a large creature. He didn’t get that way by eating grubs and going on a winter-long diet every year.

Lake Tahoe is a lucrative place for a bear burglar. There are a lot of homes in the area that are not occupied every day. Vacation homes and rental properties are good targets for the bear burger. Since the bear is not deterred by locks and burglar alarms, any house is a target and, since bears really don’t like people, houses that are temporarily unoccupied are preferred by the bear.

Animal rights advocates are calling for Hank the Tank to be relocated to a sanctuary. I’m not sure how that might be accomplished. It isn’t as if you can just go up to the bear and ask him to get in the back of a truck. I suspect that estimating the correct amount of tranquilizer would be a significant challenge and once the bear is tranquilized, just getting it into a vehicle would take a large crew. Then the sanctuary would need some significant barriers to restrain a bear that could easily walk through most fences.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. I’m just hoping that Hank’s head doesn’t end up mounted over the fireplace in a cafe somewhere.

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