NDOW Bear biologist seeks protection from Tahoe activists’ aggressive tactics

Read the original article by Benjamin Spillman at rgj.com here.

Biologist Heather Reich has worked with grizzly bears in Montana and black bears in Nevada.

But she said Wednesday she’s never been more scared on the job than during encounters in the field with Tahoe-area animal rights activists.

“It’s hard enough working with bears,” Reich said. “But the level of intensity these folks carry is something I have never experienced.”

On Wednesday, Reich shared those concerns with Judge Pierre Hascheff in Reno Justice Court.

Reich, along with her employer, the Nevada Department of Wildlife, were seeking to extend a protective order against animal rights activist Carolyn Stark of Incline Village.

Stark and her attorney, Stephanie Rice, argued against an extended order. In court papers they accused NDOW of making a “vindictive attempt to vilify and silence Ms. Stark’s wildlife advocacy efforts in direct violation of her Constitutional rights.”

Hascheff said he understood why Reich might worry about her safety around activists but stopped short of issuing the extended order against Stark.

Instead, he issued another temporary protective order and scheduled another hearing for Dec. 13.

A temporary protective order typically lasts for about 30 days. An extended order can last as long as a year. An extended order also carries the potential for felony charges if violated.

Hascheff said Stark could continue to attend public meetings about wildlife issues but warned her to stay away from Reich when Reich’s working in the field.

“That means you have to be careful about your interactions with Ms. Reich,” Hascheff told Stark.

The Incident

The hearing stemmed from a Sept. 14 incident when Stark followed Reich on Mount Rose Highway and Interstate 580 while Reich was towing a bear trap. Reich had released a tagged bear at the Tannenbaum Event Center and was returning to Reno.

Reich said she was afraid for her safety because Stark was driving aggressively and following her too closely.

“It’s dangerous enough pulling a bear trap,” Reich said of the trailer-mounted steel devices used to capture and transport bears that come into conflict with humans. “It would have been worse if I had a bear in the back of that trap.”

During the hearing, Bryan Stockton, the deputy attorney general representing NDOW, played a video shot by Reich’s husband, Derek.

Derek Reich, an NDOW volunteer, was in another vehicle during the incident.

The video showed Stark’s car appearing to cut off another vehicle in an attempt to get directly behind Reich then following at a close distance.

In court papers, Stark said she was driving safely. But after viewing the video, Hascheff said her driving appeared to be unsafe.

“In the video I saw you cut somebody off,” Hascheff said. “It looks like you were following pretty closely.”

Stark didn’t directly dispute the characterization, but said she is typically a safe driver. She argued that the video only showed 90 seconds of the 15 minutes she was following Reich.

Stark said she never intended to encounter Reich on the highway.

She said she was driving from Incline Village to Reno to buy supplies for a barbecue when she saw the NDOW truck towing the trailer. She said she only attempted to get close to the trailer to determine if there was a bear inside.

“At the time, Ms. Stark had absolutely no idea who the driver of the NDOW truck was and Ms. Stark had no intention of approaching, communicating with or in any way interacting with that person at any point in time,” Rice wrote in a filing in opposition to the order.

But Heather and Derek Reich, along with NDOW Deputy Director Jack Robb, said their safety concerns went beyond Stark’s driving.

Social Media Threats

They shared threatening comments people posted on a Facebook page Stark administers and said Stark and other activists have interfered with NDOW workers during field operations.

One Facebook comment included a call for people to kill people instead of bears and others suggested damaging or tripping the traps, which is illegal.

Robb said he has contacted Stark in the past to request she remove threatening comments. He also said he reported comments to Facebook.

“Facebook has removed every one of the things I pointed out to them,” Robb said. “That justifies in my mind these were a credible threat, and they were seen by Facebook as a credible threat.”

Stark said she removes inappropriate comments as she can but that she doesn’t always have time to do so immediately.

Rice said the comments NDOW shared in court provided an incomplete picture because they didn’t include instances of Stark urging people to avoid threats and obey the law.

“There are wildlife advocates who cross the line and get to a place that is clearly inappropriate,” Rice said. “Ms. Stark might be the furthest from that person.”

She also said extending the protective order against Stark would infringe on her legal rights.

“She has First Amendment rights to assert her position and try to educate others on her position,” Rice said. “Ms. Stark is peaceful, she urges others to be peaceful.”

After the hearing, Derek Reich said the Facebook posts and aggressive road encounter are troubling regardless of Stark’s intentions.

He said in recent months the rhetoric seems to have intensified and that he’s worried it could encourage a disturbed person to harm him, his wife or other NDOW workers.

The clashes with activists near Tahoe, he said, cause more anxiety than the work the couple did with grizzly bears in Montana.

“We never experienced anything like this, not even remotely close,” he said.

After the hearing Rice said she nor Stark would have no further comment.

Past Encounters

Stark has previously clashed with NDOW.

Stark, a former board member for the Bear League, an activist group that protests NDOW’s bear management tactics, was among the defendants in a 2017 lawsuit by bear biologist Carl Lackey.

That lawsuit accused the Bear League and administrators of anti-NDOW Facebook pages, including Stark, of undertaking a “vicious and calculated effort to damage his reputation and jeopardize his employment.”

And in 2015, a former state senator and Incline Village resident sought a protection order against Stark related to Bear League protests of a trap outside his house.

In that case, the judge denied the order because the trap had already been removed by the time the parties were in court. But he did warn group members about their tactics, according to reports on the case.

The crew at Fire Station 39 on Joy Lake Road woke to some strange sounds on Sept. 29, 2018. Take a look at what they found! A momma bear was guarding the scene, according to the crew. Pictured in the video is firefighter/paramedic Ed Martin of Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District. Video courtesy of TMFPD/, Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District

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