No it’s not your imagination.
The bears, at least some bears, are indeed still out.
Although most bears in Mammoth and the surrounding area have bedded down for the winter, not all of them have, said Mammoth’s Wildlife Management Specialist Steve Searles.
“It’s as if every bear has a different barometric pressure point,” he said. “They each need to reach a certain weight so they can survive the winter, and each responds to different temperatures and other factors differently.”
The bears are like some football players, he said.
“They know they have to “make weight” so they can make it through the winter,” he said.
Those that are still out, the ones seen lying about in the sun, or stumbling through condo complexes after garbage, are “extremely lethargic” he said.
“We are even getting calls from people concerned about a bear they see because it is not moving much,” he said. “When we do a welfare check on it, it’s mostly that the bears are simply slowing down, lying in the sun, not eating much.”
Most of them will eventually find a den for the winter, he said.
But even in mid-winter, it is not uncommon to see some bears in Mammoth.
In fact, even in Crowley, homeowners have been seeing bear tracks and bear scat scattered throughout the community right up to this week.
Sometimes, a second homeowner will come to Mammoth to find a bear denned in the garage. The bear then gets chased out and has to find another den. In the meantime, the bear could be hanging out around Mammoth, looking for a new home not already taken by other bears.
The sow and two cubs that went on such a rampage before Thanksgiving are three of the bears no longer moving about Mammoth, Searles said.
“We haven’t heard any reports of inappropriate behavior from her since that week,” he said.
That sow is one of the ones he means when he talks about “making weight.”
“She has to feed both those babies through the winter and I think she was a little behind, and knowing she might not have enough for them both,” he said.
“Hibernation is a general term. Black bears do not reach a classic hibernation state; instead, they experience something more like ‘winter lethargy.’
Their body temperature does not decrease as significantly as that of some small rodents, which reach almost complete torpor as their body temperature and heart rate plunge and their internal processes reduce significantly,” said Bruce Kinney, Environmental Program Manager of the Department of Fish and Game.
Even in midwinter, black bears’ lethargy can be interrupted by a disturbance as slight as a researcher shining a light into a den.
While many picture a bear den as a nice big hole under a dead tree, covered with snow, Kinney noted that in the Mammoth area, a bear might just as likely dig out a cavity under a cabin. He then jokingly referred to Mammoth’s ‘bear condo complexes,’ where bears den in the big black pipe culverts under the golf course.
General triggers of black bears’ winter lethargy include decrease in daylight, decrease in temperature, increase in snowpack, and access to and individual requirements for food. Female bears give birth during this lethargy, during mid to late February, depending on the integrity of the den site and the condition of the bear, according to Kinney.
Bears may become active throughout the winter. Kinney said that some might not have stored as much fat as others, or little guys may simply want to continue to feed because of competition, having been the last ones to get the pickings when bigger bears were active. Black bears habituated to (as opposed to shy of) humans in town, where they find alternate (as opposed to ‘wild’) food, may stay active longer.
Kinney said, “We have seen incidents in mid January into mid February. Foraging shouldn’t be unexpected,” as he warned, “Maintain levels of awareness. We have seen winter activity consistently over the years.”
Kinney told of a bear that tore the wood siding off a house, then returned to remove the plywood that was used to replace it. He noted that persistence varies with individual bears. “There is need to exercise extreme caution, safety and awareness day and night,” he said.
“Actions have far-reaching effects; you cannot ignore how your actions affect others,” Kinney continued. Each habituated bear is driven to find a mate, which leads to more habituated bears, which then exceed human tolerance as competition and individual tendencies toward aggression result in property destruction.
As black bears exceeded the tolerance of people in the Lake Tahoe area, many were removed and destroyed. The cycle of habituated bears leading to destroyed bears repeats across the United States and Canada, Kinney said. That translates around town as ‘a fed bear is a dead bear.’
The efforts of Town Management and the work of Michael Grossblatt resulted in a comprehensive, professional solution by addressing the easiest way to limit bear capacity: to minimize food. While tremendous compliance with regulations regarding trash disposal resulted in a significant reduction of town bears year round, more bears have been seen in the past five years in Crowley Lake, Tom’s Place and Sunny Slopes, Kinney noted.
These observations led Kinney to hypothesize that Mammoth’s habituated bears may be moving to nearby communities.
He said a wild bear’s territory could be two square miles. When that territory is minimized by alternate food, competition from other bears could push some to seek more alternate food in other communities.