The practice of shipping marauding bears in the Lake Tahoe Basin out of town may be humane, but it's also ineffective, according to a study by wildlife experts.
Over a five-year period, eight bears were captured in the South Lake Tahoe area and moved to such remote places as Nevada's Sweetwater Range and the Pine Nut Mountains.
Within a few weeks, every one of them was back at Tahoe.
"We had bears going right across the desert flats. We had them going across alfalfa fields. In several cases, we had them crossing through towns," said Jon Beckmann, a former University of Nevada, Reno researcher now working for the Wildlife Conservation Society.
The study by Beckmann and biologist Carl Lackey of the Nevada Department of Wildlife focused on the opportunity the desert landscape of Western Nevada offers for relocating bears that cause problems in communities such as Tahoe, Reno and Carson City.
That's because large stretches of desert and scrub up to 40 miles across in places can separate the mountain ranges that provide "islands" of bear habitat, Lackey said.
"We wanted to test whether these huge valleys in between these islands would act as a barrier to movement," he said.
Between July 1997 and April 2002, eight adult bears captured on Tahoe's Nevada side were relocated to mountain ranges to the east. Within 18 days, all of the bears had returned to Tahoe. Two even survived collisions with cars while crossing highways.
Radio transmitters attached to the bears allowed biologists to monitor their journeys.
One bear wandered in a 150- 200-mile odyssey from his drop point near Hawthorne. He returned to Lake Tahoe just over two weeks later.
The study, published last month in the periodical Western North American Naturalist, confirms that relocation of problem bears is not an answer, even in the unique landscape of Western Nevada, Lackey and Beckmann agreed.
"They're going to come back anyway regardless of how far you move them," Beckmann said.
Instead, experts will continue to rely on "aversion" techniques in which captured bears are released at or close by the place of their capture. Upon their release, they are harassed by dogs, shot by rubber pellets and otherwise given an experience so unpleasant that officials hope the animals are persuaded to stay away for good.
"We try to teach the bear to associate everything we do to it with that area," Lackey said. "These are bold bears. The idea is to teach them not be so bold around people."