Late spring is an active time for Tahoe bear cubs and yearlings


Contacts: California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, Peter Tira 916-215-3858; Nevada Dept. of Wildlife, Ashley Zeme 775-600-5669; USDA Forest Service, Lisa Herron 530-721-3898

Keep Tahoe bears wild! 

LAKE TAHOE, Calif./Nev., June 5, 2024 – As temperatures rise, bear cubs and yearling bears are emerging from winter dens. Some remain with their mothers, others are independent, and a few may show signs of illness. The Tahoe Interagency Bear Team (TIBT) urges the public to follow the guidelines below when encountering bear cubs this spring.

Cubs of the year, born around Feb. 1, are sticking close to their mothers while learning survival skills in the wild to prepare them for life on their own in about one year. For those cubs born a little over a year ago, now called yearlings, it is time for them to part ways with their mothers and siblings. Mother bears, once free of these “teenagers,” will once again find a mate and breed to continue the cycle of producing cubs every other year. 

Cubs of the year are dependent on their mothers and are learning how to forage on natural foods, including grass, berries, grubs, and other wild fares. During this phase, mother bears may be protective of cubs so give them space. Never get between a mother bear and her cubs. If you see a small cub alone or up a tree for safety, the mother sow may be in the area. Back away and give them room to reunite. 

This time of year, wildlife agencies receive many calls from people concerned they have found an orphaned cub when they are actually seeing an older yearling that is safely on its own. A good rule of thumb in knowing the difference is to look at the size of the bear. If the bear is the size of a cat (around 10 to 15 pounds), it is a new cub of the year, and chances are the cub’s mother is somewhere nearby. She may have sent her cubs up a tree while she goes to forage. Keep an eye on the cub and if you do not see its mother after a few hours, call the appropriate state wildlife agency below so a wildlife professional can assess the situation. Yearlings, on the other hand, are normally between 50 to 150 pounds and are well-equipped to make it on their own. They do not need handouts or human intervention.

Something that also seems to be reported to wildlife managers more and more each year are undersized cubs and yearlings, often orphaned and malnourished, and sometimes behaving oddly for a wild animal. These young bears tend to be alone, are small for their age and often skinny, with no fear of people, are reluctant or unable to flee, and exhibit habituated behaviors often described as “dog-like.” “These bears could just be hungry orphans looking for food, but increasingly we are seeing signs of neurologic disease symptoms like a slight head tilt or tremors,” said California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) Veterinarian, Brandon Munk. 

Since 2014, CDFW and the Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW) have been investigating cases of encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain in young bears in the Tahoe Basin and throughout their range in California and Nevada. CDFW and NDOW have partnered with researchers at UC Davis and Oregon State University to determine the causes of encephalitis in California and Nevada black bears. They have discovered both viruses and parasites associated with the condition but have not yet confirmed the primary causes of the disease. 

“We think the condition is more significant as a risk for increased human-bear conflict than a risk to bear populations or to people,” said Dr. Munk. 

On occasion, a cub has truly been orphaned, which could result from a vehicle strike or other cause of death of the mother. You may also see a small bear that may be showing signs of encephalitis. In either case, the proper state authorities, CDFW or NDOW, should be called to evaluate the situation and safely transport the cub for evaluation and/or rehabilitation. Resist the temptation to offer food handouts to these bears or to collect a bear for transport yourself to preserve their chances of remaining wild and eventually being released back into the wild.

Picking up a cub too soon or while its mother is just around the corner can do a lot more harm than good. If the bear is a yearling, it is perfectly normal for it to be on its own. If you’re not sure, don’t hesitate to call a wildlife professional at CDFW, California State Parks or NDOW to ask. Check out the TIBT’s video on the differences between cubs and yearlings.  

Don’t teach these young bears to be comfortable around people. If they are too close, make noise and scare them away so they don’t feel comfortable and want to stay. While it’s fun to see bears and even take pictures and videos, you’re communicating to the bear that it’s OK to be close to people, which can lead to habituation. 

Bears are smart and acquire learned behaviors based on their experiences. If they have a negative, scary encounter with a human, chances are they will try to avoid people in the future. Allowing bears to become comfortable around people can lead to unwanted activity, including breaking into cars and houses or approaching people who are eating outdoors. It is illegal to feed bears both directly and indirectly by allowing them access to human food or garbage.

For more information on bear encounters, visit the BearWise webpage on how to behave if you see a bear.

To report human-bear conflicts or bear health concerns:

  • In California, contact CDFW at 916-358-2917 or report online using the Wildlife Incident Reporting (WIR) system at apps.wildlife.ca.gov/wir
  • Non-emergency wildlife interactions in California State Parks can be reported to its public dispatch at 916-358-1300.
  • In Nevada, contact NDOW at 775-688-BEAR (2327).
  • If the issue is an immediate threat, call the local sheriff’s department or 911.

Learn more about living in and visiting bear country at TahoeBears.org and Bearwise.org. Do your part to keep Tahoe bears wild!

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