A 500-pound black bear keeps breaking into California homes. What’s next?
The large bear associates neighborhoods with easy access to food.
Over the last seven months, a 500-pound black bear known as Hank the Tank has broken into at least 28 homes and is responsible for at least 152 reports of what the California Department of Fish and Wildlife calls “conflict behavior” near the Tahoe Keys area of South Lake Tahoe.
Hank is “severely food-habituated,” the wildlife department says, meaning that he has lost all fear of people and now associates humans with access to food. The state agency is conducting a “special trapping effort” to capture the bear, with the intention of either relocating Hank to a sanctuary or euthanizing him.
California’s wildlife agency says Hank, at 500 pounds, is “exceptionally large,” and he is undeterred by tasers, sirens, beanbag rounds, or other “hazing” efforts. The bear uses “its immense size and strength to break in and through front doors and garage doors,” the agency wrote in a blog post on Thursday. Hank started intruding in homes in Tahoe Keys in July, and his trespasses have not stopped since, leading some to think that he never hibernated—something that can happen if bears have consistent access to food.
“He didn’t get fat like that eating berries and grubs,” Ann Bryant, the executive director of the Bear League, a local nonprofit that aims to protect bears, told The New York Times. But Hank is a gentle giant, said Bryant, adding that when he does invade a home, he is really only interested in food. “He just sits there and eats,” she said. “He doesn’t attack them. He doesn’t growl. He doesn’t make rude faces.”
California’s wildlife agency says it is considering euthanizing Hank upon capture as a “last option.” While relocating the bear to a sanctuary of some kind would be preferable, the agency says that “adult bears may be poor candidates for placement due to the chronic stress of adjusting to captivity after living in only wild conditions.” Hank cannot be released back into the wild, the agency says, as he will likely return to human neighborhoods to find food.
In a Facebook post, the Bear League agreed that “relocation to a bear habitat elsewhere in the wild is not an option,” and that it is “frantically working to save his life by reaching out to various wildlife sanctuaries in hopes of finding him a safe home.” The Bear League has also claimed the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has not reached out to any bear sanctuaries and is targeting Hank “for death.”
[Related: How to keep fat bears (and other bears) out of your trash]
While the Tahoe Keys residents and organizations like the Bear League do not want to see Hank euthanized, that would not be such an uncommon fate for a black bear. As black bear numbers grow—there are currently about 300,000 black bears in the country—habituated bears are a consistent problem. Oregon state officials killed a habituated black bear in 2019. The National Parks Service killed a black bear at Yellowstone in 2020 after it injured a woman at a campsite.
Hunters also commonly kill black bears in multiple states. Many states hold annual hunts in an effort to cull increasing bear populations, per the National Wildlife Federation. And according to Western Wildlife Outreach, 50,000 black bears are hunted in North America each year—likely an underestimate that doesn’t account for poaching.