‘Bear Brigade’ is on a mission to keep 3R bears wild


Two friends are on a mission to ensure that Three Rivers residents and its wildlife live congruously. They have dubbed themselves the Bear Brigade.

The fall of 2015 was unprecedented in terms of bear activity in the community. It caught locals by surprise even though everyone who lives here ought to know better when it comes to co-habitating with wildlife. 

Being on the fringes of Sequoia National Park and visiting there from time to time, community members are well trained on how to not feed bears. But all of a sudden, the bears weren’t in the park anymore, where bear-proof trashcans and food storage is readily available. 

Instead, they discovered the unsecured trashcans in Three Rivers. And it was easy pickings.

While the majority of bears now seem to have done what they instinctively do and headed back to the higher elevations for their long winter’s nap, some have stayed in town. These are the most food-conditioned bears; probably adolescent males, according to Dave Graber of Three Rivers, who spent his National Park Service career studying bear behavior.

Bear Brigade— The Bear Brigade — also known as Jana DesForges and Sarah Elliott — has worked tirelessly to provide free installation of hardware on trashcans and recycling cans while educating community members about bears and proper food and waste storage. There have been a few breaches recently as the most determined nuisance bears try everything from clawing to chewing, biting, swiping, dragging, wrestling, and tossing the trashcans in an attempt to compromise the chain installations. But for the most part, and with a little effort on behalf of local residents, the bear-proofing has been successful.

The Bear Brigade women have witnessed the lengths a bear will go to in order to obtain something as minor as an empty Cheetos bag or drink cup. The holidays from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day have been especially challenging. In the past two months, the Bear Brigade has picked up trash, contacted residents who are improperly storing trash, returned to where problem bears are targeting and installed the “super-proofing” method as warranted, and bear-proofed a total of 75 trashcans.

The stories they have been told while visiting various properties around town about the antics a bear will attempt to obtain garbage defy the imagination. Trash cans have been found hundreds of yards away, lids broken, bungees eaten, plastic chewed away, fences torn down, sheds and garages broken into. The tales of success have been many, with some being posted on social media: upside-down trashcans, muddy trashcans, dented trashcans, but with the garbage still intact. 

Invention out of necessity— Jana came up with the bear-proofing contraption — which consists of chain, carabiners, U-hooks, and a super-strength bungee cord — when she noticed a neighboring vacation-rental home’s caretaker putting a full, unsecured trashcan on the street several days before trash pick-up. The can was a magnet for bears.

Last spring, Jana had the bear-roofing installed on this trashcan and soon had all her neighbors’ trashcans bear-proofed as well. But the person who was providing the installations moved from Three Rivers just as hundreds of bears were moving in.

As summer turned to fall, requests to the email address (bearproof3R@gmail.org) for bear-proofing that is publicized as a public service each week in The Kaweah Commonwealth started piling up quickly. Jana’s pleas for an installer went unanswered.

Sarah, co-owner of the Commonwealth, who has written extensively over the past 20 years on how to coexist with bears, saw the dilemma, teamed up with Jana, and the Bear Brigade was born. 

On Saturday, Nov. 7, the two tackled their first trashcan at the Three Rivers Historical Museum. After two hours of trial and error, the bear-proofing was complete on one of the museum’s two cans. Since then, Jana and Sarah have worked together every weekend, bear-proofing as many as 10 cans in a day.  They now install the bear-proofing hardware in less than 10 minutes.

Community responsibility— The biggest challenge continues to be on trash day. The best way to deal with a secured trashcan is to set it out as close to the time of pick-up as possible, only unlatching the chains for as short of a duration as possible.

During these dark, cold, wet winter mornings that is certainly not a pleasant task. However, since the bears that are still in town terrorizing trashcans are now so habituated to this type of meal, the chained-up trashcans at this point can only be considered a deterrent, not 100 percent “bear-proof.” After all, bears can rip into cars, buildings, and locked freezers, so the plastic trashcans – and the newer the version of trashcan provided by Mid Valley Disposal, the flimsier the plastic – can always be compromised by a pertinacious bear.

But the mission to bear-proof every trashcan in Three Rivers continues. After all, more bears will return next summer, and it’s easier to keep food away from a wild bear than it is to deter a food-conditioned bear. 

It will always take extra effort on the part of Three Rivers residents to dissuade bears from being trash-conditioned. 

Hazing will work if a wild bear hasn’t had access to trash. Hazing, however, will only temporarily deter a nuisance bear. A bear that has sampled the easy calories available in a trashcan will not be easily discouraged from trying to get more.

This is why it is better to focus effort on keeping bears from becoming a problem in the first place. The Bear Brigade has seen first-hand the commitment of so many community members to keep bears out of their trash — many have installed their own locking devices on their trashcans — but until 100 percent compliance is achieved, there will always be problem bears. And that’s a death sentence for them.

These days, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are basically bear-proofed. But Three Rivers has created some food-conditioned bears that will return to the parks. Once they get into trouble there, they will be euthanized as that is the parks’ method for dealing with bothersome bears. 

Contact bearproof3R@gmail.com to arrange for the bear-proofing of brown or blue trashcans. The cost is $20 for materials; the Bear Brigade will provide the installation at no charge. Residents may also request a kit of materials to install themselves or a free set of instructions that will detail the hardware to purchase and how to install it.

How Three Rivers should handle garbage— The most important way to minimize human-bear conflicts is to keep garbage away from bears. Unsecured commercial and residential garbage bins, dumpsters, and cans attract bears like bees to flowers. Once a bear gets a taste of human garbage, it will routinely return for these easy, plentiful calories that require little energy to obtain.

Bear-proof waste management is a multi-tiered effort. In order to ensure the safety of residents and visitors, all public, residential, and commercial waste containers in bear country must be bear-proof. 

Ideally, there should be no street-side pick-up. Instead, residents should take their trash to large, communal, bear-proof waste bins that are conveniently located around town. Another alternative is to designate one or two large waste transfer stations to which residents can bring their garbage.

The transfer stations must, of course, be bear-proofed. The best method is usually a sturdy, electrified fence and gate. 

Waste management in Three Rivers and its protocol is something that should be of concern to all Three Rivers residents and absentee owners and must be addressed in the Community Plan. It is important for Three Rivers residents to make their voices heard on this important issue (email Dave Bryant at dpbryant@co.tulare.ca.us or attend a Community Plan Update meeting).

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