Bears in the Truckee Meadows
Bears are back, but they have a problem: Human trash
Long-time residents and newcomers alike have been surprised to discover black bears across much of the Truckee Meadows recently. A big reason for this is that black bears, which were once extirpated from Nevada’s landscape in the early 1900’s, are rebounding and re-inhabiting their historic range in the state. However, much of their historic range in the Truckee Meadows does not look quite like it used to. The Truckee River corridor is now lined with development — neighborhoods have been built into mountainsides and forests, and valleys are checkered with busy roads — leading to some problems for both humans and bears.
With bears redispersing into the now more urban Truckee Meadows, they have quickly discovered a different kind of resource: our trash. From Reno to Gardnerville to Hawthorne and beyond, the Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW) has been receiving an average of over a 1,000 calls a year regarding bears and bear activity, and at the root of over 90% of these calls is one thing: human trash. For a bear, a trashcan is a caloric jackpot. One discarded piece of pizza, for example, packs around 250-350 calories. To match that, a bear would have to forage for over a pound of wild raspberries. However, this new trash “resource” brings bears and people into uncomfortably close proximity to one another, a pairing that almost always ends badly for the bears.
Following the discovery of the massive food rewards to be gained from our garbage, bears will often change their behavior entirely. They come into urban areas more and more, becoming more night active to continue capitalizing on human trash while people are asleep. Then, they often begin seeking out only human food sources, and even begin to lose their natural fear and avoidance of humans by now associating us and our homes as resources. It’s a slippery slope that can quickly lead to a bear causing significant damages, entering homes and becoming a public safety risk in their pursuit for food. This leads to the lethal removal of around 4-6 bears a year on average — an unfortunate but preventable number, if trash was stored away or in a bear-resistant trashcan to keep the bears from getting to this point. However, there’s an even larger and lesser-known consequence for bears that come into urban areas, and that is car-strike fatalities.
The biggest killer of black bears in Nevada, by far, is car strikes. In the last 2 years alone, 82 bears have been hit and killed by cars in the state (46 in 2021 and 36 in 2022). This is only the reported number. Many strikes go unreported, so the true number of fatalities is likely much higher. At the root of this, again, is our garbage.
Following the discovery of the massive food rewards to be gained from our trash, bears will spend a lot more time in urban areas, crossing many busy roads in the process. This has shown to increase their chance of being hit and killed by a car drastically compared to mortality rates in wildland bears that are not conditioned to human food and urban areas. In a study looking at how bear behavior, health and reproduction was influenced by access to human garbage, it was found that although urban bears had higher reproduction rates, their mortality rates from being struck by vehicles fully negated any population growth. This means urban areas in Nevada are a population “sink” for bears. In other words, bears that go into urban areas don’t come out, making our urban areas a death trap for bears.
I know what many of you are thinking, why don’t we just relocate all the bears out of urban areas? Here comes the disappointing truth about relocation: the bears come back.
Relocated bears do not stay put. They can travel up to 100 miles back to the area where they were originally captured. There are cases where the bears don’t come back, but this rarely equates to a success story. Often those bears find another source of human food in a new area or get hit and killed by cars while trying to return.
The graphic below shows a relocation attempt done at Yosemite National Park back in 2015. You can see the bear returned in a near-straight line to the area from which it was captured in about six days. Relocation, at best, buys you a bit of time to secure the trash and other human attractants that drew the bear there in the first place. It is not the solution many think it to be. The root of the problem still remains access to human trash. Even if the bear that was getting into your trash doesn’t come back, if the trash remains accessible, another bear will likely backfill it to capitalize on the still unsecured “resource.”
It’s very clear that our actions have a significant impact on the behavior of bears in our communities, but there are things we can all do to reduce this negative impact and keep bears wild.
1. Get a bear-resistant trash can
Waste Management (WM) offers bear-resistant garbage cans that can be left out. You can request one by calling 775-329-8822. In the meantime, keep your garbage cans stored in a locked shed or garage and only put it out the morning of trash pickup.
The best time to secure your trash and/or get bear-resistant trash can is before you’ve even had a bear get into your trash. Remember over 90% of the bear calls NDOW receives are related to human garbage. If we all took action to secure our trash from bears, we could solve 90% of the issues ourselves.
Be aware: Washoe County also has a garbage ordinance in place which requires residents to secure their trash to prevent bears from getting into them. Failure to do so can result in fines.
2. Remove any other attractants from your yard
- Don't leave out pet food.
- Clean dirty barbeques.
- Remove fruit from fruit trees.
- Remove bird feeders from dusk to dawn.
- If you have a garage fridge/freezer, keep the garage door closed.
3. Protect livestock from bears and other wildlife
Electric fencing is a great deterrent for bears and other wildlife. It’s strongly recommended that you install electric fencing around beehives, chicken coops, and livestock pens if you’re near bear or mountain lion habitat.
4. Don’t let bears get comfortable around people and homes
If you see bears near your home, scare them away. From an open window or safe distance, yell loudly and/or bang pots and pans to scare the bear away. Yelling things like “Hey bear!”, “Go bear!”, “Get out of here bear!” alerts those around you to what’s going on. You can also trigger your car alarm to try to scare them off as well. These methods can help negatively condition bears to humans and houses and teach them that it is not OK to enter these areas.
More information on living with bears, visit:
To report bear incidents, call 775-688-BEAR (2327).
Thank you for taking the time and for helping keep bears wild.
About the author
Raquel Martinez is dedicated to reducing human-wildlife conflicts and promoting proactive solutions and coexistence between humans and wildlife.
She is the urban wildlife coordinator for the Nevada Department of Wildlife, guest writes for Truckee Meadows Parks Foundation, and has worked as a wildlife research technician and a wildlife ranger for the Bear Management Program in Yosemite National Park.
She has a bachelor’s degree in wildlife ecology and conservation from the University’s College of Agriculture, Biotechnology & Natural Resources.