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A Tahoe bear faced euthanasia after a spate of break-ins. DNA evidence spared him

A black bear sitting in a tree
A black bear known as Hank the Tank is seen in a photograph taken by a South Lake Tahoe resident. He had been suspected of breaking into dozens of homes in search of food.
(Toogee Sielsch)

Internet celebrity, serial break-in suspect and 500-pound black bear Hank the Tank was falsely accused — at least partly.

The bear had been suspected of breaking into nearly 30 homes and causing extensive property damage in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., over the last seven months as he searched for snacks, earning him designation as a “severely food-habituated” bear and putting him at risk of being euthanized or relocated.

The fate of the rotund fellow became a cause célèbre as photos of him circulated on the internet, where his many aliases included Yogi, Chunky and the Big Guy.

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But evidence gathered after a break-in reported last week planted doubt that Hank had been the sole culprit in the crime spree, saving him from euthanasia by state wildlife officials.

For seven months, the bear has smashed through doors in search of food. Euthanasia could be state wildlife officials’ last resort.

“DNA evidence collected from the most recent incident as well as prior incidents over the past several months prove that at least three bears were responsible for breaking into numerous residences,” the California Department of Fish and Wildlife said in a statement Thursday.

Hank had been implicated in last week’s break-in “likely based on visual observation,” according to the statement, but DNA evidence showed the real perpetrator was a female bear, said department spokesman Peter Tira.

Members of a homeowners association in the waterfront Tahoe Keys neighborhood voted last week to allow wildlife officials to set up traps on their properties to catch Hank. Even bear advocates admitted he should no longer be allowed to roam free, although they pushed for relocation over euthanasia in the event of his capture.

“He’s on a mission. You can tell he likes to eat,” said Ann Bryant, who oversees the Bear League. “The Big Guy likes to eat where it’s easy to get food, and he doesn’t like to forage.”

Nearly a century after the California grizzly was hunted to extinction, black bears are being killed by motorists in record numbers.

In a post on its Facebook page Thursday, the advocacy group said, “Hank no longer has a death sentence hanging over him and he is no longer going to have his freedom taken away from him by sending him to a sanctuary.”

“Those options are off the table,” Tira said.

For now, the department will undertake a “trap, tag, haze” campaign during which bears will be captured, tagged with an ear tag and released using hazing methods such as air horns and paintball guns to instill a healthy fear of humans.

The program also aims to gather DNA to prevent the future misidentification of bears.

Wildlife officials urged residents and visitors of the Lake Tahoe area to “bear-proof” their food and trash to prevent human-animal encounters.

“Increasingly, CDFW is involved in bear/human conflicts that could have been avoided by people taking a few simple actions,” the department wrote. “Improperly stored human food and trash are likely attracting bears into this neighborhood. We all need to take all precautions to store food and trash properly to protect ourselves, our neighbors and local bears.”


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