The Bear Facts

Sierra winters are the stuff of legends - beautiful, but ominous in their potential for severity. Yet, the malicious outpourings of Mother Nature are occasionally less than spectacular.

During the winter of 1946-47, 16-year lows hit Donner Summit's snowfall and snowdepth measurements, attesting to the unusually mild winter of that season. Meager precipitation in the Tahoe Basin that year not only disappointed local ski-sport enthusiasts, but guaranteed that the following year would be a lean one for forest creatures.

Lack of life-giving water meant that little food was available, and some animals starved to death, while others - in desperation - ventured much closer to civilization than they would have dared in a more bountiful year. Precipittion the following winter was only average, and short rations persisted, driving animals down from the high country in search of food.

In Yosemite, the usually docile bear population began to create havoc in the park. State Fish and Game officials, after considering various means of dealing with the menace, finally settled upon a plan to capture and remove the worst offenders to an area not populated by humans. That fall, the "renegade" bruins were rounded up, loaded onto cattle trucks and driven north into the Lake Tahoe Basin, with the eastern edge of the Desolation Valley Wilderness Area planned as their new home.

However,winter snows came too early to insure the success of the, blocking Miller Lake Road (southwest of Homewood) to vehicle traffic somewhat short of the burly cargo's anticipated destination. It was not long before the year-round west shore residents began to discover that their proximity to the actual "release point" was potentially hazardous to their health.

It seemed that the bears, their faces boldly dashed with yellow paint (applied as a form of identification rather than assessment of character), had found the picking in the backwoods slim indeed, and the alluring aroma of local dumps, especially those maintained by nearby Chambers Lodge and Tahoe Tavern, began to draw them toward civilization and inevitable encounters with humans. Restaurants, markets and private homes also become the targets of the famished bruins' quest for sustenance.

Posters advertising a $500 fine for shooting one of the beasts had been widely circulated by the Department of Fish and Game, though most west shore residents were ready to risk the verdict of their peers rather than die at the hands of a yellow-faced bear. Some went about the defense of their lives and property with a frenzied passion.

One local resident who gave serious attention to the matter of self-defense was Herb Haley, then caretaker of the Ehrman estate at Sugar Pine Point. The diminuitive Haley was a friend and frequent host to Tahoe City Constable Harry Johanson, and it was not long into the siege of the "bad news" bears that Johanson made a trip down the west shore, stopping at the estate to pay Haley a friendly visit.

When he failed to find the caretaker in the main house, Harry began a systematic tour of the outbuildings. Pausing before the door of one, he pulled it slightly ajar in preparation to call out a greeting. But, before the Constable could utter a word the point-blank discharge of both barrels of a shotgun rigged to erodicate ursine prowlers sent him on his way with quite a different cry on his lips. Though Harry declined to press charges, the incident definitely put a strain on the relationship, as well as forever curing Harry of entering a premises without knocking.

The only slightly less frightening experience of coming face to face with"Old Brin" (or one of his near-relations) became commonplace in the months following the arrival of the four troublemakers. By the summer of 1949, the local bear population was little-diminished. The Sierra Sun continued to report frequent sightings of bears, including an incident involving Miss Carolyn Bolton, daughter of the then-proprietors of Waleswood Lodge (still in operation in Tahoe Park). "Miss Bolton," said the Sun, "heard a noise at the back door of their home and upon opening the door to investigate, came face to face with a startled bear. Each ran in different directions, one as frightened as the other."

Eventually, most of the transplanted bears wended an erratic way into their extended range in Desolation Valley. The local population of these shaggy brutes is by no means extinct, and the encroachment of man into what was once Bruno's exclusive domain still results in a hair-raising, hearstopping surprise for the individual who chances to meet one.

Story by Carol Van Etten. Photo by Robert Frost.

©Tahoe Country 1996-7