Three bears are dead in June Lake and it’s not their fault.
After a rash of bear break-ins in June Lake recently, three bears were shot to death in several separate incidents and the Department of Fish and Game said Thursday that it is investigating reports of a local June Lake resident who may have been feeding bears for some time now.
“I can confirm that we are investigating reports of a woman who is believed to be feeding bears in the area,” said Andrew Hughan, a spokesman for the department.
The bear killings; one by a June Lake resident and two by Mono County Sheriffs deputies, were a “last resort” said both Sheriff Rick Scholl and resident Dean Rosnau.
Rosnau took out a bear depredation permit retroactively. He said Monday that Fish and Game issued the retroactive permit, after hearing about his encounter with a bear in his home and agreeing with him that the shooting of the bear was in self defense.
“Dead as soon as people started feeding them”
“Those three bears were dead as soon as people started feeding them,” said Rosnau. He refused to give names of the people (he believes there might be more than one) who he says are feeding June Lake bears, but said “they have been doing it for years. It’s even worse that they were locals.
“This was a terrible situation that did not have to happen,” he said.
“It was terrible,” he said again, visibly shaken.
He said he shot the bear in his home early Sunday morning after repeated attempts to scare the bear away. “It was in my house, on my porch, and it came straight at me trying to escape and I was armed,” he said. “This is what happens when you feed bears.”
Scholl said deputies shot the other bears earlier.
“Those two bears had broken into numerous homes over the past weeks, seven days in a row, whether the owner was home or not and our hazing techniques did not work,” he said. “The owner was petrified.” He said the bears had a long history of causing problems and that it is possible that they were siblings.
Scholl said that although bear problems technically belong to the jurisdiction of the state Fish and Game Department, there are only two game wardens to cover a huge amount of territory, meaning bears and other animal “problems” are often dealt with by on-duty sheriff deputies who can respond comparatively quickly.
“Anything that could be a public safety issue, or cause property damage, we respond to,” he said. All incidents are reported to Fish and Game, he said.
He knows his department is likely to face some criticism for the bear killings, but he believes that deputies do everything possible to prevent bear deaths.
“As per our policy, and as you can see by the reports, killing a bear is the last resort and only done after hazing techniques have not worked, or the bear is an immediate threat to the public,” he said in an email Thursday.
“We (sheriffs deputies) use the same handbook with the same manual as the Mammoth Lakes Police Department uses,” he said. “We use many of the same hazing techniques, with much of the same equipment. The only thing we don’t use that they use is pyrotechnic devices, anything that could start a fire.”
“Mutual aid” doesn’t apply to bear issues
Mammoth’s Steve Searles, known as “The Bear Whisperer” in Mammoth and across the world now due to a popular television show, works for the Town of Mammoth Lakes as a wildlife specialist. Searles has helped develop and perfect many of the bear hazing techniques that are being used by law enforcement across the country and in other countries as well.
He believes the June Lake bear killings were entirely preventable.
“It’s a matter of training, both the people and the bears,” he said. “You simply can’t feed bears, or leave food out and expect them not to associate that with humans.”
He said he is frustrated with his limited reach: he’s only allowed to employ his bear-hazing techniques within the four-square-mile boundaries of the Town of Mammoth Lakes due to a complicated and volatile mass of differing agency regulations, politics and personality conflicts that have dogged his efforts to protect bears outside of Mammoth for decades.
It’s not that he believes he can single-handedly save every bear. He does not. But if he can help — if he has the time and training to help occasionally — why deny him?
“Any other situation where one agency cannot handle something alone, they call in for reinforcements,” he said. “That’s why they call it mutual aid. It happens when there are fires, when there are search and rescues. But not with bears and they pay the price for it. I can’t help even when I have the time and training to do so.”
Mammoth Lakes Police Chief Dan Watson said he is fully supportive of Searles extending his work into the county, should the county request help.
“I’ve told them that,” he said.
But Scholl believes his deputies can handle the situation in the county, due to their proximity to the local areas affected and the training he said they already have.
“Mammoth has a much bigger problem than we do,” he said. But he added that there has been a big increase in bear-related incidents across the country, not just in Mono County, where his reports show a marked spike in bear incidents.
In the end, the three bears are gone and June Lake residents are left to grapple with the issue, just like their neighbors down the road do. Is there anything anyone could have done before it came to this? Why didn’t someone turn in the people believed to be feeding the bears sooner?
There are a lot of questions, a lot of answers still to be found.