Among the best-known snowsports destinations in the western United States, Lake Tahoe, has generated not one but two viral bear videos this month.

The videos were captured in Heavenly Mountain Resort, a long-running operation in South Lake Tahoe on the California-Nevada border. The ski area, which operates via a special-use permit on lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service, lies on the flanks of the Carson Range, a spur of the northern Sierra Nevada.

Tao Feng posted footage to TikTok of nearly colliding with an American black bear as he skied down Heavenly’s Ridge Run Trail on the late morning of December 10th. The bear can be seen motoring through the snow at full speed across a slope crowded with snowboarders and skiers.

@tao7570  #heavenly  

“Didn’t realize it was a bear until it was too close,” Feng wrote, though fortunately neither he nor anybody else actually ran into the animal.

According to the Los Angeles news station KTLA 5, Feng “felt better about the situation when he saw the bear reunite with its mother on the other side of the trail.”

Meanwhile, over on Instagram, Nolan Brown posted a video that same day showing a sow black bear and her two cubs passing beneath the chairlift he was riding on. “Been skiing @skiheavenly my whole life,” the captain reads, “never seen anything like this.”

(The brownish hue of the cubs in that chairlift video as well as the bear booking it in front of Feng is common among black bears in the Sierra Nevada, and indeed across much of the American West, as we touched upon here at Earth Touch News recently.)

It may seem a bit late in the year – and a bit snowy – for black bears to still be out and about up on the mountainsides of the northern Sierra. But as Peter Tira of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife explained in an ABC 10 report on the Heavenly videos, some bears of the Tahoe Basin, finding a rich source of human foods available during the winter, eschew hibernation and remain active through the snowy season.

California supports at least 30,000 to 40,000 American black bears, some 300 of which are thought to roam the Tahoe Basin. In the ABC 10 story, Tira noted that this area supports one of the densest populations of black bears in the state.

Managing the bear/human relationship in the Lake Tahoe area – host to extensive development and a major outdoor-recreation industry – can therefore be complicated. That includes during this time of year, when those local black bears that do hibernate sometimes make their winter quarters in crawlspaces and under decks. The Tahoe Interagency Bear Team, whose website details best “bear-wise” practices for both residents and vacationers in the area, recently released a video showing how to secure such spaces from denning bears:

Responding to the extensive coverage of the recent bear encounters, Heavenly Mountain Resort released a statement that read, in part: "As a resort that operates on National Forest lands, wildlife sightings can occur on occasion. We deeply respect the diverse species that inhabit the area within and surrounding the resort.

In situations where these animals are noticed, we have specific protocols to prioritize the safety of our guests and the well-being of these animals. This includes maintaining distance and promptly alerting our ski patrol, mountain safety, and security teams when needed. Thankfully, interactions between our guests and bears are infrequent as these animals usually move on quickly."

It’s worth noting that the effects of ski resorts on local ecosystems have been the focus of increasing research, with indications that the habitat modification, infrastructure, and activity associated with these operations can negatively affect wildlife and plant communities. Besides the disturbances of ski-area development and human presence, there’s concern that increasing use of artificial snow by resorts in the face of climate change may intensify its environmental impacts. Those can range from the sonic disruption of the snow cannons used to apply the stuff and the significant water and energy inputs to potential chemical pollution and the effects on local phenologies of artificial snow’s slower melt-off compared to natural snow.

Some ski areas are taking steps to address their environmental footprint: not only regarding their carbon footprints, but also in terms of restoring or replacing impacted habitat, adopting more sustainable snowmaking practices, and supporting wildlife-crossing and corridor initiatives. Heavenly Mountain Resort partners with the Forest Service in monitoring and managing the ski area’s whitebark pines, a high-elevation western North American stone pine threatened by beetle infestations, a non-native fungus, altered wildfire patterns, and other threats compounded by climate change. 

Circling back around to those recent Heavenly bear encounters, they’re not the first time skiers and snowboarders have had up-close run-ins with big shaggy beasts. In 2021, Eurasian brown bears ran after skiers on two separate occasions at a ski resort in Romania’s Carpathian Mountains.

And an equally once-in-a-blue-moon event in 2016 saw a group of skiers and riders outside the Indian ski town of Gulmarg in Kashmir encounter a (pretty freaked-out-looking) snow leopard – among the world’s most rarely seen large carnivores – on a wooded slope. 

Header image: Eric Kilby