In Tahoe, homeowners must remain vigilent to protect their houses from bears trying to break in.
Across the Tahoe Truckee region, a new trend in home design has become more popular in recent years. Door by door, window by window, pairs of wires are strung between brackets and hang across the threshold. On the front door, a yellow sign hangs with a warning about an electric voltage.
A decade ago, the electric wires were nonexistent. But now, in some Tahoe neighborhoods, the vast majority of homes are outfitted with them. The wires serve a very practical purpose: They prevent bears from breaking into homes.
Ryan Welch, who is the founder of Tahoe Bear Busters, is so busy installing electric wires on homes in Tahoe that he’s been booked solid for months. He’s been turning away work since September, because he was booked all the way through December. Now, he’s finishing up the last of his projects before winter arrives.
In the 10 years that Welch has been doing this work, he’s outfitted about thousands of homes with bear security systems, using the electric wires that he designed. The technology comes from electric fencing often used on farms or ranches to keep animals in.
Welch’s goal is the opposite. He wants to keep bears out. His method works.
“Ten years ago, I did wait for that phone to ring,” Welch told me. “Now I just want a break from the phone.”
Electric wires like these give bears just enough of a shock to make the bears not want to come back or try to break into the house.
In Lake Tahoe, bears are a part of daily life. So are the squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons and coyotes, but when a bear breaks into a house in search of food, the damage is much worse than anything a squirrel or a chipmunk could do. Wildlife experts aren’t sure if bear break-ins are on the rise — there is no single agency or group that monitors that data across the Lake Tahoe basin, which spans the California Nevada stateline and has multiple state wildlife agencies, emergency authorities and nonprofits that respond when a bear intrudes a home. A spokesperson from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife said they don’t track the number of bear break-ins because not all of those incidents are reported to them. But anecdotally, the calls reporting such incidents come in multiple times a day.
Longtime locals know the best way to keep their homes safe — and keeping the bears safe, too — is to make it as hard as possible for bears to break into a house. But sometimes, even a locked door isn’t enough of a deterrent, hence the electric wires. Add to the mix the recent wave of new residents, many of whom moved from cities and are in the midst of a steep learning curve about mountain life — which includes lessons such as “how to operate a snow blower” and “how to stop bears from busting down your front door.”
Garbage strewn in the street lures a bear to an unoccupied home in the middle of the day. Bears look in the windows of garages and can recognize trash cans, which I happen to know from personal experience. (We started covering our trash cans in a tarp to disguise them before we, too, installed electric wires across the windows and doors of our house.) If a bear thinks a house is empty — they don’t go into homes they know are occupied — and the door is unlocked or a window is unopened, the bears will just let themselves in.
At night, when all is dark and quiet, a bear might mistake an occupied house for being empty. That’s how homeowners or renters wake up in the middle of the night to a bear ransacking their kitchen.
At the peak of summer, Ann Bryant, executive director of the BEAR League, said her organization received as many as 15 calls a day reporting bear break-ins. And in South Lake Tahoe, the Lake Tahoe Wildlife Center’s Executive Director Denise Upton said that bear break-ins spiked during the Caldor Fire, when the entire city was evacuated.
Mark Lyon, who owns Sierra Windows and Doors in South Tahoe, said he’s finally finishing up the last of about 20 jobs to repair doors that were ripped apart by bears during the Caldor Fire.
“Doors flex,” Lyon said. “So [the bears] know if they push hard enough, they just flex it until it cracks.”
Lyon said one street in South Tahoe had seven broken doors from bear intrusions. He has even seen video footage, thanks to high-tech doorbell systems, that shows bears turning around, planting their front paws down, and using their back feet to kick the bottom of the door. “They know what they’re doing,” Lyon said.
During the Caldor Fire, bears took advantage of an evacuated South Lake Tahoe and broke into multiple homes while they were vacated.
Bears breaking into homes is not a new trend. Bryant says the volume of calls the BEAR League receives has always fluctuated, with some years more than others, but more or less it’s been the same. She does think that there’s more chatter about bear break-ins in Tahoe, likely from social media and from all the new residents who moved to the area during the pandemic. The type of caller she gets has changed over the years, from longtime locals who are familiar with bears to newcomers who are frightened of them.
“We’ve gotten so many people from the city that are buying property up here,” Bryant said. “They bring a city mentality with them into the mountains. And they are clueless about how to live in bear country. That really escalates the problem because they don’t understand that you have to close and lock your doors. You have to take care of your trash.”
The tactics used by Lake Tahoe residents to deter bears from entering their homes are as vast and creative as you can imagine. Many people purchase dog barking machines that, when they register movement, start barking loudly. Upton recommends air horns. She’s also been known to open an umbrella and start waving it at the bear.
“They’ve heard the pots and pans thing,” she said. “So you have to up your game.”
Tahoe Bear Busters has installed thousands of wires like these at homes across Tahoe Truckee to prevent bears from breaking in.
One of the worst and most inhumane methods that’s been used is called nail boards. Homeowners pound long, sharp nails into a sheet of plywood and leave the board under a window with the pointy end of the nails facing up. Thankfully, nail boards have been uniformly discouraged by authorities and experts for years and aren’t very common any more.
There are also better ways that are much more effective and safer to prevent bears from climbing in a window. The first step being: Shutting the window and locking it.
The majority of bear intrusions are what Bryant calls “soft entry,” meaning the bear didn’t have to force its way into the house. The door could have been left unlocked. A garage door left wide open. A renter could have forgotten to lock a sliding glass door — which is what happened in South Tahoe this past summer, when a bear broke into a vacation rental and when the renters came home, one person shot the bear in the head multiple times and killed it. As what usually happens in the worst of these encounters, the human gets injured. But the bear dies. It is a tragedy all around.
“Our big mission is to try to teach the people to fix the problem,” Upton said. “They don’t have to keep killing the wildlife … There are other ways of dealing with it.”
Electricity is the best tool to use to prevent bears from breaking into a house. This was echoed by both Upton and Bryant, two of the most experienced bear experts in Lake Tahoe.
To protect their homes from bear break-ins, homeowners are stringing electrified wires across their windows and doors.
Before he was installing electric fences, Welch was working for a hot tub company, making the rounds for homes with hot tubs that needed servicing, when he realized how frequently bears were breaking into homes in Lake Tahoe. This was around 2010, and he started doing research into electric fences, which he knew about from growing up around farms in the Central Valley. The electric fences used on farms weren’t exactly mountain home chic, nor were they practical for the Sierra Nevada winters, so Welch set about improving the system and adapting it for residential use.
“I started manufacturing my own components,” Welch said. “I created the electrified doormat — the idea, the design and manufacturing of it. I created my own bracketry that goes into the doors and windows that’s tailored for a house so it’s aesthetically cleaner, stronger, more functional.”
In 2011, he installed his first electric fence. Ten years later, he estimates he’s installed about 5,000 systems. He also recommends that homeowners get their electric fence serviced once a year for maintenance.
“As I’ve created cleaner and more functional systems, more homeowners are realizing that, you know, it’s becoming a necessity to live in the mountains,” he said.
Welch said he’s never had a bear get through a system that he designed — so long as the owner followed his recommendations and kept the system turned on. The wires need to be installed in specific places, like across the threshold of doors and windows, to be the most effective. At first the wires might look strange, but after a while, they blend in. And they’ve become so popular, every house has them. Every time homeowners leave the house, they hang the electric wires on the brackets outside their front door and turn on the switch. It’s simple and takes just a few extra seconds. After a while, it’s as much a part of a routine as locking the front door.
The shock from the wires is enough of a charge that humans would feel it, but it wouldn’t hurt them. It doesn’t harm the bears either. The shock is just enough of a deterrent that makes them not want to touch the wires again. Welch says that bears and other animals can also smell the ozone from the electricity coming off the wires — so bears know when a wire hanging across a window has a charge cursing through it or not.
He implores people to keep the electric wires turned on all the time, especially at night. If a bear can get into a house once, it will surely return and try again.
“Any time a bear gets a reward at our properties, they will continue to come by our house, hoping to get another reward,” Welch said. “And the bears remember that. They’ll keep coming by.”
In the decade that Welch has been installing fences, he’s seen neighborhoods that were once razed by bears grow peaceful because the homes are now secured with electric wires. One neighborhood on the West Shore, on Timberland Street, was so haunted by bear intrusions that one homeowner eventually gave up, boarded their home with plywood and spray painted a message saying that the bears have won.
Now, Welch says that about 90% of the homes in Timberland are protected with his electric fences. Not coincidentally, the bear incidents there have become fewer and farther between.
At the same time, neighborhoods that rarely saw bears in years past are now getting targeted. Welch said he’s getting calls from homeowners in Glenshire, on the eastern edge of Truckee, where bear activity isn’t nearly as frequent as Tahoe’s West Shore. The bears move around, and wherever they’re active, homeowners will need Welch’s fences.
“I give people a lot of peace of mind,” Welch said. “They know that when they drive away from their house, when they come back, their home is going to be fine.”
– This obscure Tahoe cabin is key to California’s water future
– 40 years later, a new film looks back at Tahoe’s deadly avalanche
– How an SF tycoon became Tahoe’s greatest conservationist
– [Affiliate] The best hiking boots and shoes for women
For weekly updates, interviews and profiles from a Tahoe insider, sign up for our Tahoe newsletter here.
Julie Brown is a contributing editor at SFGATE. She covers Lake Tahoe. A former managing editor at Powder Magazine, she writes about people living in mountain communities throughout the West. Brown grew up on Tahoe’s West Shore.
In Tahoe, homeowners must remain vigilent to protect their houses from bears trying to break in.