Searles asks town to bear down, warns fines are option

Mammoth’s bears are up and about early—too early for the grasses and greens they usually rely on for much needed calories in the spring.

The bears also bedded down late due to the late snows. Some of them did not fully bed down at all since the snow did not seal in their dens all winter.

This combination means they are unusually hungry right now and Mammoth’s wildlife specialist Steve Searles said it is time to ramp up efforts to keep the hungry bears out of dumpsters, or face fines.

“We are doing a good job, but it’s not good enough,” Searles said recently. “The bears have been out for weeks. It’s exciting, but it’s going to be challenging this year.”

He said he has been called out several times to the same locations in town where dumpster users are not closing the dumpsters when they are done.

The hungry bears do the rest: raiding the dumpsters and thereby becoming habituated to human food. A bear that has learned human food as an option can quickly become a nuisance bear, which can lead to the bear’s death.

 “This is really, really frustrating,” Searles said. “It’s always been voluntary, but this year, if you live here, you’ve been warned. I am going to write you a ticket.”

Searles said writing someone up is a last resort; something he almost never does due to the immense effort he and the rest of the town have done to educate people about how to avoid feeding bears.

This year, though, a few repeat offenders are becoming a problem.

“It’s the last thing I want to do, but I will take it to court and a judge will decide from there,” he said. “I need everyone’s help now. One guy cannot do it seven days a week, 24 hours a day. If it’s a perfect dumpster and it’s left open, well, then you deserve a ticket. If someone doesn’t know how to clip a carabineer, gosh, I’ll come over and show you how to do it.”

Mammoth has had a remarkable run of problem-free summers lately, despite the last three summers being some of the driest on record.

Searles said he hopes the actions of a few people don’t put the bears at risk this summer, like what has happened in so many other communities across the country and the world.

He noted other communities routinely kill bears that have become accustomed to human food; even local communities outside of Mammoth Lakes where Searles cannot, by law, practice his unique non-lethal form of “bear aversion” techniques. In some places, hundreds of bears were killed because they became too accustomed to human food, and thus, destructive and sometimes dangerous.

This summer could test the Mammoth Lakes community and the bears like no other summer, Searles said.

 “It’s not just how much water, it’s when things come,” he said. “Right now, nothing (grasses, other shrubbery) is up; it’s a really unique year. I think it’s a 50/50 chance this year that we won’t have enough natural food for the bears.”

Many of the bears are coming into the spring hungrier than usual because they’ve been more active during the snowless winter.

Instead of hibernating sealed up in their dens at an almost constant temperature and in a completely dark area, the bears were exposed during the past winter to fluctuating temperatures and light.

Although most of them were not out and about during the winter, neither were they fully in their winter sleep mode, and that means the bears burned more calories during the winter than they normally would.

It also means, Searles said, that the chances of survival for any new cubs born during the winter are very slim.

“We will probably see a 100 percent mortality for newborns, but there are five cubs out there (from last year) that made it through the winter, so (we will) be seeing the mother out there with cubs,” he said.

Mammoth Lakes Police Chief Dan Watson said he hopes Mammoth residents and visitors can rise to the occasion and come through for the bears once again.

“(Look at) Florida and Canada and even June Lake,” he said. “Every year there is more than one bear put down.  (Look at) Tahoe. They have problem bears they have to put down there every year.”

Mammoth is proof that living with bears is possible, Watson said.

He noted Searles’ new effort to branch out into social media; Twitter, YouTube, etc., is not only helping people around the world and the country learn about how to live with bears, it is also amusing watching the tech-averse mountain man Searles learn to use the new technologies.

“It’s been fun watching Steve learn social media,” Watson said. “It provides a lot of enjoyment for those of us watching from the police department.”

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