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Student studies bear activity in county

October 30, 2013

In the trenches of the human-bear conflict, Mammoth residents are aware of bear and wildlife issues. But in Mono County, scientific population studies on black bears are lacking, according to biologist Jonathan Fusaro.

As part of his Master’s degree, Fusaro decided to take a look at the black bear population in Mammoth Lakes and compare it to a wild population near Monitor Pass.

Until now, population surveys have largely relied on data collected from bears harvested during hunting season, said Fusaro, who is also a scientific aide to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

This is problematic for several reasons, he said, one of which is that hunters tend to shoot bigger, more transient males.

Current wildlife laws and regulations are not necessarily rooted in science, Fusaro said.

“As a scientist, your methods have to be repeatable,” making them applicable to other communities.

“It’s not just about one town and solving their issues,” he said. It’s about the whole problem.

For his study, Fusaro said he set non-invasive hair traps to collect tufts of hair from the bears without harming them in any way. These tufts would later be analyzed for DNA, and used to identify individual bears.

The residents in Mammoth, he said, were very helpful once he explained his goal, and allowed him to set hair traps on private property around town.

For now, Fusaro said he is trying to get a handle on the populations of urban and wild black bears in his respective study sites. But in the future, he said he hopes his samples can provide information about what areas bears focus on in town, and whether or not sows are teaching their cubs to rely on human food.

Anecdotally, many residents of Mammoth Lakes may be able to answer this question.

“Sows teach their young how to use the resources in their environment,” Fusaro said.

But, he said, this doesn’t necessarily mean all urban bears will stay that way.

“Some cubs go on to be a wild bear.”

Cubs will often disperse when they leave mama bear, a strategy to prevent inbreeding. But this can also mean, he said, “if cubs are used to human food, they may end up in other communities.”

Fusaro said there have been reports of Yosemite’s problem bears (conspicuous with their brightly colored ear tags) turning up in Mono County. And just this summer, bears from the Sweetwater Range in Nevada found their way to Big Pine to cause some trouble with cabins there.

California black bears were historically found only in the Sierra Nevada, Fusaro said. Their range has expanded, however, to include mountain ranges in far northern and southern California.

“Since 1982,” he said, “the black bear population in California has tripled.”

And in the past century, bear attacks have increased alongside human population growth.

“It could just be that we’re in their faces more,” Fusaro said. “We’re interacting with them more.”

What’s worse, he said, this interaction results in thousands of dollars worth of property damage every year.

Tim Taylor, Mono County biologist for California Fish and Wildlife, said, “since 2001, in the eastern Sierra Nevada, Mono County, local area biologists and wardens have annually spent 25 to 35 percent of their work time from June to October attempting to resolve bear-human conflicts.”

Fusaro said he hopes getting a good, scientific count of the bears in one urban and one wild environment will help improve population monitoring, and help gain support to mitigate and elucidate human-bear conflicts.

“If bears keep coming into town and you keep killing them, eventually you’re going to run out of bears,” Fusaro said. “It’s a phenomenon called a source-sink dynamic.”

In town, bears may be hit by cars, poisoned by trashed, or killed for entering homes, he said.

As far as solutions to the urban bear problem go, “there is no silver bullet,” Fusaro said. Using science-based and adaptive management strategies will take time, he said.

In the words of his advisor, Michael Conover, “I’m a successful biologist if everybody hates me just a little bit.”

Even the bears.

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