What's behind 'Don't feed our bears'

In the wake of the third drought spring in a row, Mammoth’s wildlife specialist and “Bear Whisperer” Steve Searles recently made it clear that the party for people who repeatedly leave dumpsters unlocked or otherwise feed Mammoth’s bears and wildlife is over.

“It’s always been voluntary but this year, if you live here, you’ve been warned. I am going to write you a ticket,” he said at a recent Mammoth Lakes Town Council meeting.

He didn’t arrive at that decision lightly, however. It’s been a long process that started more than 20 years ago, he said later in an interview.

“Twenty years ago, we didn’t even have dumpsters everywhere, let alone bear-proof dumpsters,” he said. “I couldn’t write a ticket for something residents couldn’t control. That was a matter for education and that’s what I did. Ten years ago, we didn’t have generations of sows teaching generations of cubs how to stay out of the garbage. But now we have all of those things in place.

“There is no excuse this time.”

What does the law say?

Indeed, the laws regarding feeding wildlife in Mammoth appear to be clear. They reside in something called the Municipal Code, in Section 6.24, “Feeding of wildlife prohibited.”

The law is succinct: “No person shall feed or in any manner provide food for one or more nondomesticated mammalia including but not limited to bears, mountain lions, coyotes, raccoons, mice or squirrels.”

The penalties for doing so appear equally clear, as spelled out by the code. “Violation of this chapter is an infraction,” the code reads, punishable by fines of $100 for the first violation, $200 for the second violation within one year and $500 for each additional violation ‘of the same provision’ within one year.'

If the person doesn’t agree to pay the amount, they can take it up with a judge, Searles said.

But perhaps the law isn’t that clear, after all. What exactly does “feeding wildlife,” mean? Does it mean someone can’t feed a squirrel with a squirrel feeder without risking a fine? Does it mean someone violated the law when he didn't take that last apple out of his car because it was late and he forgot about it? 

Legally speaking, the law was violated in both situations; a human fed a food to a species of wildlife specifically named in the law.

If it were that simple, however, almost everyone in Mammoth, even the most conscientious animal lover, would have been fined at some point.

This is where the art of education, policy and law enforcement come together, Searles said.

“Someone’s feeding a bird with their birdfeeder and that attracts the bears,” he said. “Do I give them a ticket? No. I talk to them. I tell them they can feed their birds in the winter (when the bears have bedded down for the season). Do I give the person who left apples in their car a ticket? No. They already have to pay for the damage the bear caused to their car. They have to clean up the bear poop the bear left in their car. I talk to them. I give them the sticker and I go on to another incident.”

That's for the first time offenders, new visitors, or those who might have had little chance to learn to live with Mammoth's bears.

For those who are none of the above—for longtime locals and business owners and condo and apartment complex owners—and in anticipation of a coming summer that is likely to provide little to no natural food for the bears, Searles said he plans to crack down on repeat offenders.

“What I am talking about is the people or the condo complexes that repeatedly leave their dumpsters open, or the businesses that repeatedly don’t secure their garbage, even after repeated warnings and when they have the tools to do so.”

One challenge that Searles and the town officials that do code enforcement  face is the issue of accountability. In a town full of condominiums and apartment complexes, it is next to impossible to know which person left the dumpster open.

Under the law, that problem is solved by fining the owners of the complexes where there are repeated violations, he said. This puts the onus to educate residents and visitors and to properly outfit each complex on the owner or homeowners association.

Recent budget shortfalls and staff reductions at the Town of Mammoth Lakes have cut the number of people who can enforce the wildlife feeding laws significantly, he said, putting even more pressure on those who can do municipal code enforcement (Searles, the remaining members of the Mammoth Lakes Police Department force, and what’s left of the Town’s code enforcement personnel).

‘We learn to live with them’ 

Searles said he isn’t necessarily expecting major problems this spring and summer, even with the drought, but he is preparing for them. He added the overall bear situation in Mammoth is a highly unusual experiment, with outcomes that are the envy of many other communities that routinely deal with bear problems.

“What most people don’t realize is that if we shoot our way out of this problem, like some places do, for every bear we shoot, there are several bears waiting in the wings ready to take its place,” he said. “The bears here have been trained. Sure they make mistakes, like all of us do, but do I want to start over? No. It’s the ‘fox guarding the henhouse,’ and it works.”

It all comes down to a choice of what Mammoth wants to be as a community, he said.

“I cover about 26 square miles, or the incorporated area of Mammoth Lakes,” he said. “A lot of people think it's only four-square miles, but it’s not, it’s 26. We have almost exactly 26 bears within that area (give or take the bears seasonal migrations in and around the area).

“Are they all living on just wild food? No. This area could not sustain that many bears on just the native vegetation here. They are partially living on irrigated landscapes, on the shrubs and foliage and berries that we humans create. Is a golf course considered to be ‘natural?’ Are the lawns with the dandelions that bears love to eat natural food?

“But are they living on just trash? No. I examine hundreds of scats and I can tell you our bears are eating about 5 percent trash. 

“It comes down to social carrying capacity,” he said. “On a scale of 1-10, we are at an 11 with this. We have decided as a community that we don’t want to shoot the bears. So we learn to live with them.”