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Drought Forces Bears Into Nevada, California Communities in Search of Food

The ongoing drought conditions in Nevada have led to an increase in black bears venturing into urban environments to search for sources of food.

The dearth of water has stalled the growth of available wild foods, such as grasses, natural fruits and nuts, which grow in upper regions of the Sierra Nevada that the bears call home.

When these natural foods fail to mature in the volume needed, there is not enough to sustain the bear population in Nevada or California's Lake Tahoe Basin, Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW) Spokesman Chris Healy said.

"Often times, unfortunately, because a lot of our urban areas here in Nevada are right up to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, the bears will extend their search for garbage," Healy said. "And the more the drought conditions have affected the natural food supply for the bears, means that we're going to have more interactions with bears searching for garbage."

Eighty percent of the state of Nevada is under severe drought conditions, with half of the state suffering from extreme drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

The NDOW captured 97 bears in 2013, but so far in 2014, they have captured about 55, including 41 since July 1.

In July, Healy said they handled 20 bears between Reno, Carson City and Lake Tahoe. During one 10-day period, seven were captured around Lake Tahoe, according to the Associated Press.

The number of bears they handled dwindled to 11 in August, which Healy said was attributable to an unseasonable amount of moisture, which led to some growth of those natural foods in the mountains.

This slowed the bears' search for food because the mountain provided it for them again, Healy said.

But the benefits of that are going away, and along with maturing fruit on residents' fruit trees in the urban areas, Healy said they expect to be extremely busy with bear activity through early November.

Typically, Healy said the NDOW is able to trap the bears and safely relocate them back in the mountains above the urban area where they were caught. However, sometimes the bears are struck and killed by cars or, in other situations, a bear will be euthanized if it poses a threat to public.

Healy said one bear was put down after it broke into a house.

"If you make a bear addicted to human food, that's a bear that eventually is going to get into trouble and may end up having to be euthanized by the authorities because it's become a danger to human beings," he said.

Across state lines in California, black bears routinely wander into urban environments throughout the Sierra every year, said Jason Holley, a supervising wildlife biologist for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

While there have been some interesting bear incidents that could be attributed to the drought this summer, there's no direct data to show correlation to the drought, Holley said.

"The one thing we do suspect, is that since this drought is so severe and it's gone on so long, we do suspect that it has increased the need for bears to wander farther in finding their food and finding their daily water needs," he said.

"And in turn, that increases the likelihood that they come across people or they come across roads."

Using an extraordinary sense of smell, bears can find natural food resources on their own, which is why wildlife officials stress to residents that it's vital not to feed them. It's also important to secure food and garbage appropriately.

"If they are fed, they can become quickly food habituated which means they're reliant upon us for the food and they keep coming back for those same food items," Holley said.

In August, a bear attacked a Lake Tahoe woman who was allegedly feeding the bears for years in her backyard. The woman could now face charges of illegally feeding the bears, according to the Reno Gazette-Journal.

"If you want to keep [the bears] alive and wild, you have to respect the bears and not feed them, don't attract them," Healy said.