Third year of drought triggers some changes in wildlife behavior

The warm, dry weather has changed some wildlife behavior this winter—some of Mammoth’s bears are still up and about part of the days—and more changes could be on the way, according to Mammoth Lakes Wildlife Specialist Steve Searles.

“Given the situation of the three drought years, is it reasonable to expect that something unique could happen this spring?” Searles said.

“Sure. We don’t have any snow. It’s just incredible. It would be obvious to think that we will have massive changes.”

He also said—and it is a big caveat—the same thing could have been said in the past two drought winters. Instead, he said, certain factors combined to normalize the bear and wildlife behavior in Mammoth, even through the historic drought years.

More important than how much water or snow an area gets is the timing of it, Searles said. Last year, despite it being the driest year on record, the Eastern Sierra experienced a “bumper crop” of currants and other forage for wildlife.

This happened because the snow and rain came at such a time as to allow that explosion of green, which then sustained the animals through the bone-dry summer, he said.

The other factors were the people and animals themselves.

“The community has really come through,” he said. “They have been excellent about keeping trash secured, about not leaving anything out to feed the wildlife.”

As a result, even coyotes and raccoons, often pests when the bears are less present, have been rarely seen this winter, he said.

“That’s why I keep saying, if anything unique is going to happen with wildlife anywhere, it will be here, in Mammoth,” he said.

“So yes, it’s reasonable to think something extraordinary could happen to the bears this summer, that they might not have enough to eat and begin to be trouble, but I thought that was going to happen two springs ago when we didn’t have any grass or currant crop and it still didn’t. That’s because the community came through and so did the bears.”

That said, the warm weather and lack of snow is probably playing at least some part in how the Eastern Sierra’s animals are acting.

For example, Searles said he has noticed a deer herd at the airport that has not left to go to lower elevations in the past three drought years.

“That might not be related to the drought, but it is something I’ve not seen before,” he said.