SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. - The habitat of Lake Tahoe bears is not defined by their once-expansive range high in the Sierra Nevada or the thousands of acres of piney forests at the base of the snowy peaks. Here, the black bear's domain can be measured in city blocks.
A year-round supply of garbage has lured the beasts from the vast wilderness to the streets that ring this resort area better known for drawing tourists to its pristine blue waters, its casinos and its ski runs that plunge toward the shoreline.
In settling into the easy life, the Tahoe bear has altered its hibernation cycle, taken to prowling the graveyard shift and grown fatter than your average bear.
The consequences are sometimes deadly, according to a study in the Journal of Zoology that documents behavioral changes as the bear has adapted to a less-than-wild environment.
The study by Jon Beckmann and Joel Berger of the Wildlife Conservation Society debunked assumptions that the bear population was booming.
Instead, it found bears were moving from the mountains to neighborhoods, leading to increased conflicts and more bear deaths.
"It's an issue that's not going away, it's going to increase," Beckmann said.
The results highlight a growing problem across North America as housing creeps into wildlands and animals try to take advantage of the change.
Indeed, bear encounters are on the rise throughout the United States and Canada. From sprawling development along Colorado's Front Range to Albuquerque, N.M., to San Diego to parts of the Northeast and Midwest, Beckmann said.
Historically, black bears in the Tahoe basin roamed up to 150 square miles and weighed 200 to 300 pounds, said Carl Lackey, a wildlife biologist with the Nevada Department of Wildlife who helped with the study.
"At one point, we had 12 bears within one square mile of a Dumpster," Lackey said. "Good ol' Burger King. Those Whoppers fed some whopper bears. We had several in the 450- to 550-pound range."
Bears are making their dens under homes, dozing through the day on porches and ransacking houses during late-night binges.
For an animal with a 25,000-calorie-a-day diet, Dumpster diving is the fastest food available. Garbage pickers can get their fill in a few hours by covering little ground compared with their wilder counterparts that spend more than 20 hours a day foraging for berries, nuts and carrion.
And while a bush can only be picked over once, residential trash cans bear new food each week.
Despite heavy snowfall that drives most bears into dens for the winter because of a dwindling food supply, the so-called urban bears have a steady supply of vittles, leading to shorter hibernation periods. Five of the 38 bears studied around Tahoe didn't even take their winter naps.
"They come out once a week - garbage night," Lackey said. "They've got that down."
On a rocky Nevada hilltop neighborhood overlooking the casinos clustered at the California border, Janeen and Mark White have peacefully coexisted with nature for five years - until recently.
Last month, a bear peeled back the door of their Jeep. Earlier this month, a bear tore open the bottom half of their metal garage door and raided the garbage.
Two nights later, it returned for the mother lode - a freezer full of frozen fish from Alaska. The bear overturned the ice box and ate a $400 seafood dinner. It returned the following night, flipped the freezer again and finished off the remaining $100 worth of salmon, crab and shrimp.
"Where the bear came over and opened the garage door like a tin can you gotta wonder what's keeping them from coming through the front door and going straight for the refrigerator," Mark White said.
Wildlife officials and sheriff's deputies have tried hazing bears with pepper spray, chasing them with aggressive dogs and shooting them with rubber bullets - an approach that has helped reduce bear incidents at Yosemite National Park by 75 percent in the last five years.
But Yosemite, where rangers once fed the bears as a tourist attraction, has an advantage over the two-state Tahoe area and its many layers of government.
The park, which reduced incidents from 1,584 in 1998 to 390 this year, has the ability to alert every visitor about the bear problem, provide bear-proof food storage and cite visitors who break the rules.
At Lake Tahoe, regulations vary and are loosely enforced, said Ann Bryant of the Bear League.
Bryant, also known as the "bear woman," has devoted the last five years to saving bears. She has worked to get communities to pass ordinances, helped secure funding for bear-proof Dumpsters and tried to teach people to change their own habits to protect bears.
She tells what she calls horror stories: an old woman who set out a batch of syrup-slathered pancakes each morning for the bears; parents who smeared peanut butter on their children's faces so they could click photos of cubs licking it; a bar that advertised a bear happy hour, leaving a trash bin open and handing out cameras so patrons could record the feeding frenzy.
"It happens over and over and over again," Bryant said. "The problem is not the bears, the problem is the people."
Once bears get hooked on human food, their keen sense of smell and voracious appetite can lead them into all kinds of trouble.
More bears are being killed each year by cars as they hunt for food closer to cities. But when the insatiable hunger leads a bear to bust into a house, wildlife officials will often kill the animal to protect public safety.
Sometimes civilians take matters into their own hands. Bryant recently was called about a poaching case and she spent four days with a dying bear that was poisoned at a trailer park for becoming a nuisance.
Already this year, Bryant has recorded 17 bear deaths on the California side of the lake, compared to 15 for all of last year. Most have been from traffic accidents.
She's bracing for the holiday because weekend visitors inevitably leave food scraps behind as bears preparing for hibernation pack on the final pounds.
"You put out a buffet and the bears will come," Bryant said. "For the past few Thanksgivings I've been out picking up the bodies."
On the Net:
Wildlife Conservation Society: http://wcs.org
Tahoe Council for Wild Bears: http://www.tahoewildbears.org/
Nevada Department of Wildlife bear safety: