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Bear With It

While black bear populations across North America return to their historical range, the Nevada Department of Wildlife attempts to adapt to bears and a
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Jasper, a bear well-known to Incline Village residents, was habitually seen ambling around the North Lake neighborhood for more than 10 years, often trailed by young cubs. In May of this year, in an attempt to scare Jasper and her three youngsters away from trash, a Washoe County deputy shot at the bear with what she believed were nonlethal bullets. However, a live round was loaded out of order, according to the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office and the Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW), and Jasper died from the gunshot wound. Authorities say prior to going out on site, the deputy emptied the shotgun, loaded nonlethal rounds, and put one lethal round in last, “just in case.” The result was that the lethal round fired first, killing the mother bear. Approximately 70 people attended a vigil for Jasper on Mother’s Day.

The incident with Jasper sparked a revival of criticism toward bear management in Nevada, with NDOW at the center of the maelstrom. The bear’s death led to a petition addressed to Washoe Sheriff Chuck Allen demanding the “needs to answer for the completely unnecessary death of Jasper,” picking up 5,500 signatures.

Jasper’s death is an ongoing personnel investigation and details cannot be released, according to Bob Herman, the public information officer for Washoe County Sheriff’s Office. But Herman confirms the agency has ordered and received a number of 40 mm nonlethal weapons for their Incline Village deputies, in response to the incident, and the deputies have also been put through a program on how to respond to wildlife with their nonlethal arms.

“We work closely with NDOW. Our mission is public safety,” Herman said.

The conflict between NDOW’s bear management and local wildlife advocates has a long and entangled history that recently entered the courts with a spurt of suits and countersuits. Even during the months prior to Jasper’s death and continuing in the wake of the accident, numerous lawsuits against NDOW, their biologist Carl Lackey, and wildlife advocates were filed by and against one another, on separate occasions.

In March 2017 NDOW’s Lackey filed a lawsuit for defamation in Nevada against bear advocates Mark Smith, Carolyn Stark, and Ann Bryant, founder of the BEAR League, a nonprofit also named as a defendant in the lawsuit. The suit came from comments criticizing Lackey on a Facebook page that Stark and Smith administrate called Lake Tahoe’s Wall of Shame. All four defendants filed anti-SLAPP motions. The outcome is still pending.

Smith has also filed on his behalf as well as on behalf of The Mark E. Smith Foundation and the Nevada Wildlife Alliance, a complaint against NDOW and Carl Lackey for two presentations Lackey gave to the Truckee Police Department accusing Smith of being a terrorist. At the same time, Smith filed against Lackey for an alleged violation of two Nevada ethics statutes. The complaint has evolved into a detailed investigation by the Nevada Commission on Ethics.

Bear Hunt

Legal bear hunts were instated for the first time in Nevada’s state history in 2010. For many bear advocates, this change in policy was the catalyst for much of the criticism toward NDOW’s bear management practices. The Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners, a nine-member, governor-appointed entity that serves as an advisory board for NDOW, made the decision to install the bear hunt.

“Things changed in Nevada when the hunt was inducted,” Bryant said. “The hunters had to be heroes, the bears had to be evil.”

The vote by the Board of Wildlife Commissioners received strong opposition from the public (78 to 98 percent, according to Smith) but Nevada is not the only state with a legal bear hunt. Thirty other states also harvest black bears as a big game sports species, including California.

Tony Wasley, director of NDOW, notes that “I would draw a clear and stark distinction between the bear hunt and the urban bear issue. Those are two unrelated issues.” Wasley says that across the country, black bears are increasing in population and thus human/bear conflicts are also on the rise.

“How much of this [population] increase is the result of a true, legitimate increase in population? How much of it is an artifact of an increase in human population density, recreation patterns, and traffic? I think it’s safe to say it’s both,” Wasley stated. “California and Nevada are not unique in realizing these population growths. It’s occurring all over the country.” The Nevada black bear hunt season runs from Sept. 15 to Dec. 1, and NDOW sells tags to Nevada residents for $100 (45 tags available) and allows five non-Nevada residents to buy tags for $300. So far, 12 black bears have been killed in the 2017 hunt. NDOW estimates through catch and release tagging as well as human sighting reports and incidents that there are around 450 to 500 bears in Nevada.

In recent years NDOW has received criticism for taking “trophy bears from the Basin and relocating them into hunt zones,” Bryant says. Between 2011 and 2015, a total of 41 bears were trapped and released in the same general area, according to NDOW bear data reports as analyzed by Carolyn Stark, a bear advocate with a background in accounting. Twenty-one of those bears were relocated to the bear hunt zones Pinenuts, Sweetwaters, and Pine Groves. Prior to 2010 (before the bear hunt was legal), no bears were relocated to these locations.

NDOW also removes bears from the population if they are reported with repeated nonsense actions or aggression toward individuals through posture, or if they are hurt in any way. From 2007 to 2012, the department had a three-strike policy, defined as if a bear has three reports of nuisances, it was euthanized. In 2012 that policy ended.

At the same time, the department says it is actually moving away from relocation as a strategy. For example, 10 years ago, NDOW admits, relocation was their first resort for nuisance bears in the Basin. Through GPS collars and improved technology, NDOW has learned that is not always the best option for bears. Today, they explain that relocation is seldom effective and the animal will often return to the same area (unless it’s a yearling bear).

“Generally speaking, we have used relocation as a last hope for that animal,” Wasley said. “We try to intervene and do a whole lot more before relocation. That is not the first step.”

They explain that management decisions depend on the bear — its sex, age cohort, and its problem history. This “gives the benefit of the doubt to the animal,” according to Wasley. However, if a bear follows its nose into a house, “that’s one strike, and you’re out,” says Wasley, which becomes a situation ending in euthanasia.

This inconsistency is where wildlife advocates often criticize NDOW.

Bryant believes that providing education and alternative management opposed to euthanasia and trapping is the answer. Bryant, who started the BEAR League in 1999, explains that during the summer months, her nonprofit will receive up to 150 calls a day for nuisance bears.

“Each call we get, we see as an opportunity to educate someone,” Bryant said. “And we are grateful for the call because by the time we are done talking, they have learned something. Over the years, it has made a huge difference. People have grown to understand that this is bear country and they [the bears] are opportunists.”

Fox in the Henhouse

The wildlife commission is required by law to have five sportsmen, one conservationist, one farmer, and one general public member. Critics say the representation on the board is out of balance.

“One of the huge gripes we have about the Board of Wildlife Commissioners, not only do they meddle and run things, but it’s overwhelmingly stacked in favor of hunters … We are always outvoted even before we open our mouths,” Don Molde, co-founder of the Nevada Wildlife Alliance, said. “In our opinion, it’s an example of the fox running the henhouse.”

Molde and others believe that the commission’s board composition must be updated. “We believe the [makeup of the] Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners has to change if there is any significant change in how wildlife is managed in this state,” Molde said. “Until the commission is restructured in a more fair way, we don’t think much good can happen.”

Bare Budget

Mark Smith, who founded the Nevada Wildlife Alliance, says “NDOW’s management is fear-based because it helps with their budget.”

Around 2007, during the economic downturn, the department lost support from their general fund — supplied through the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife — to manage urban wildlife. Therefore, NDOW began handling urban wildlife issues instead, through their user fund — supplied by payments received for licenses, hunting tags, etc.

“During the economic downturn we lost money from the general fund to deal with urban wildlife [not only bears],” Wasley said. “The director at the time determined that we would only mobilize our resources when it was a public safety concern.”

In 2007, NDOW reported nine bears as public safety concerns, in 2008 it was 17 — the greatest number ever. In 2009, however, there were only three bears removed from the population due to public safety issues.

Once the economy started to recover around 2015, Wasley explained, they approached the governor to request general funds to manage what they saw as a broader societal issue — dealing with urban wildlife. NDOW was successful in garnering more funding through a general fund supplied through taxes, Wasley said.

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February 14, 2019