Bear shooting woes
Every evening before dusk, the cinnamon-colored cub passed through Jesse Browning’s Tahoe City yard like clockwork.
Browning grew so accustomed to seeing the bear that on the days it didn’t make an appearance, he said he felt disappointed. Browning, who called the cub his “buddy,” won’t be seeing it anymore. The bear was accidentally killed last Thursday by a Placer County Sheriff’s deputy while trying to scare it away from a home in the Granlibakken neighborhood.
A little before noon on May 20, the sheriff’s department responded to a call from a Tahoe Truckee Sierra Disposal Company driver that a bear had entered a house on Goldfield Drive. Although the bear exited the residence, after walking about 100 feet it stopped to eat the bag of flour it had stolen. A deputy preparing a bear aversion kit accidentally inverted the order of the slugs, placing a lethal round in front of a nonlethal rubber buck shot. The cub was shot in the rear and killed, creating an uproar among residents who faulted the sheriff’s office for killing an animal they had come to embrace.
Ann Bryant, director of the BEAR League, was in Tahoma responding to another bear incident when she got a call from a Granlibakken resident about the cub. Rushing to the scene, Bryant was only four blocks from Goldfield when she got another call, this time informing her she was too late. “‘They killed our baby bear,'” Bryant said the caller told her.
Bryant arrived at the house to find a chaotic scene – a crowd had gathered outside the Goldfield home, some residents crying while others were screaming at the deputies. The deputy who had killed the bear was also crying.
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“The neighborhood all loved him,” said Bryant, who had been getting calls the past four months from residents asking how they could protect the year-old male cub, only recently separated from his mother. “They wanted to make sure he stayed safe.”
Both Bryant and Browning described a horrific death for the cub. After being shot in the behind, the bear reportedly ran up the stairs of the next door neighbor’s front porch, then began screaming and violently convulsing. Finally, it rolled off the porch, curled up in the fetal position, put its hands over its eyes, and died.
“It was devastating to hear the cub dying while it was crying,” said Ron McIntyre, on whose front steps the cub died. “I was devastated by the loss of a beast like that, but equally as hurtful is the poor deputy. You’ve got to feel sorry for her.”
Bryant, who confirms that the incident was an accident, bears no ill will toward the sheriff’s office. She said similar accidents have happened in Truckee and Incline Village. A strong supporter of the bear aversion program, which aims to frighten bears by using nonpenetrating rubber bullets, Bryant said the problem lies with the fact that the sheriff’s office uses the same gun for loading live and nonlethal slugs. Other police departments around the basin have a separate, bright orange shotgun used solely for bear aversion.
According to Capt. Rick Armstrong, head of the Tahoe City Sheriff’s substation, the department is considering making changes as a result of the shooting, such as making the rubber bullet a bright red color or eliminating the policy that a live round has to follow a rubber slug. The Placer County Sheriff’s Office already has an orange shotgun used as a less-lethal weapon for humans, so adding a third, bear-only gun would be costly, said Armstrong. Another option is that the department could paint any older model of guns it already has.
“We don’t have that many shotguns; we can’t put three in every car,” he said. “We’d also have to put one in patrol cars in Auburn and Colfax – we’d be looking at a major financial impact. I think we can cure (the problem) with training.”
The sheriff’s office will address the mishap at its Range Training Days this week and the next, said Armstrong, by training deputies on the shotgun loading system and how to prevent a repeat of last week’s mistaken bear killing.
“Every cloud has a silver lining,” the captain said. “Sometimes we can use unfortunate incidents so they don’t happen again.”
Bryant hopes the cub’s death will not be in vain, especially since this spring there are a record number of cubs separating from their mothers after last year’s high number of births. Communities need to be vigilant about not letting these cubs, in search of their own territory, get too comfortable in yards and under decks, warns Bryant.
She also hopes that a neighborhood like Granlibakken, which she calls exemplary for consistently keeping its garbage under wraps, will not have to lose another beloved bear.
“It’s a horrible tragedy for a neighborhood to have witnessed after having done everything right,” Bryant said. “For them to pay the price is so unfair.”
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