The Mammoth Lakes Police Department has an added duty unique to law enforcement, policing interaction between humans and the large wild animal species that inhabit the town as well: bear, deer, mountain lion and coyote. Primarily, the duty involves the bears who have become too accustomed to urban life with a taste for human food.
Working in conjunction with contract Wildlife Managment Specialist Steve Searles, police officers use a combination of loud noise and pain compliance techniques to attempt to convince the bears to quit eating human food and return to their normal food sources out in the wild. Officers and Searles have rubber bullets to sting a bear's hide and noisemakers that are similar to firecrackers. The idea is to make it uncomfortable for the bears to be near humans and houses, as they were before we started feeding them our trash.
BEARS IN AND AROUND MAMMOTH LAKES
One of the great things about living in or visiting Mammoth Lakes is being in the forest and enjoying the scenery. It also means we share home with a wide variety of animals, including American Black Bears. Co-existing with bears is a special challenge here. Read on to learn about these unique animals and how humans have unthinkingly changed how they live and eat.
MEET THE AMERICAN BLACK BEAR
This species is native to lower North America (Grizzly bears live much farther north) in places where there are lots of evergreen and/or hardwood trees.
Black bears actually show a wide range of fur color, ranging from light brown through darker brown to black. Their muzzles (noses) are generally lighter in color. A very light color, shading toward white, is possible, but very rare. Male Black bears weigh 125 to 500 pounds, and females 90 to 300 pounds. Weight depends on maturity, food supply and the time of year. As fall progresses into winter, the bears will eat heavily, trying to put on extra weight to sustain themselves through the winter.
The animals are usually 50 to 80 inches long, nose to tail, with adult males being the largest. Healthy bears will grow quickly from their relatively tiny size at birth (usually weighing about one pound). Studies have shown they live 20 to 30 years on the average.
Wildlife biologists tell us the Black bear can swim up to 1.5 miles, and can run up to 25 mph, usually in the spring when they are lean. Fat winter bears can't run as fast, as the added fat slows them down and can cause them to overheat. The home range a bear claims will vary by age and gender. Cubs and yearlings stay put with their mothers, moving only one or two miles from the den where they were born. Adult females will range two to six miles, and adult males eight to 15 miles. Bears tagged or radio-locating collared by scientists, and then moved from their home range, have been recorded as traveling 100 miles or more to get back.
Bears eat berries, fruit, nuts, insects and a variety of plants and roots. In early summer, bears are often observed on Mammoth's golf courses or in the yards of homes eating lawn grass. They do have sharp teeth and claws, but they are not true predators. The meat they naturally eat is usually from already dead animals, but they do somethimes catch and kill small birds, rodents and fish.
The climate in Mammoth varies enough that the bears here will not necessarily stay in a den all winter. Sometimes they will break out of the den when there is still snow on the ground, but there has been a warm spell without storms. During very cold winters with deep snow the animals are more likely to den up and stay put. Female bears birthing cubs will stay in the den to care for them, regardless of the weather. Active time for bears is most often June through October, but during a mild winter, they will appear earlier and stay out later, sometimes making the active season as long as March through November.
BEARS LEARNING TO BE DIFFERENT
Bears whose natural habitat interfaces with a mountain town like Mammoth find themselves including urbanzied areas as part of their range. That means exposure to the smell and taste of human food, most often in the form of household trash. Bears around Mammoth gradually learned to climb into trash cans when hungry, instead of turning over rocks and bark to find bugs. Poor trash management for many years in Mammoth trained the bears to almost exclusively eat human food, keeping them in town and lessening their natural fear of humans.
Other changes began to be noted, primarily that the cub mortality rate dropped substantially and the multiple birth rate increased dramatically. Simply put, more cubs were surviving to adulthood, and single cub births were replaced with twins and even triplets. It seemed that some things in human food, including the fat content, were actually changing how the bears lived and died. As a result, urban/mountain interface areas like Mammoth saw a bear population explosion.
In various areas of the US experiencing the same problem in the 1980s, such habituated animals were trapped and moved with the idea that they would go back to their natural habits. Biologists soon discovered that the relocated bears would simply find another town to live in, or would travel back to the urban area from where they were moved. Many bears were also trapped and killed in an effort to solve the problem. Gradually people began to realize these were unfair solutions to a human-caused problem.
EDUCATION FOR BOTH PEOPLE AND BEARS
Wildlife biologists at the California Department of Fish and Game, other scientists, and interested citizens like Steve Searles began pushing for a better way to deal with garbage eating bears. Primarily, the human food sources needed to be shut off, and quickly. Mammoth and towns like it began bear-proofing trash containers and changing local laws governing trash disposal and pickup.
Steve Searles began experimenting with the idea that the bears could be trained with aversive conditioning to return to natural habits. He believes that if humans assume the role of the alpha, or boss, bear they can push the animals out of exclusively human territory. Searles works with the natural order, in which bears do not invade another bear's den without retribution. By using noise (the firecracker rounds) and pain (the stinging rubber rounds), plus a lot of yelling and aggressive posturing, Searles tries to convince the bears to give up town territory, the human "den," as a place to obtain food. Searles then trained Mammoth Lakes Police Department officers in the same techniques. Animals are not punished for normal behavior. They are only gotten after by Searles or MLPD if they defend a non-natural food source instead of moving away from it.
A FED BEAR IS A DEAD BEAR
Don't encourage bears to take the easy way out and eat human food. If a bear finds easily obtainable food and/or food trash, the animal will continue to return until the food source is gone. A bear may check back for several days in a row (sometimes up to a week), and if the food is absent, the bear will move on.
These are common mistakes made by humans living in or visiting a forest/urban interface area such as Mammoth Lakes:
Household garbage isn't disposed of properly. Take trash straight to the provided trash receptacles where you live or are staying. Follow all property management trash rules posted for that location or written in a lease. Homeowners in Mammoth who are responsible for disposing of their own trash need to make regular trips to the transfer station, or store trash properly for pickup. The containers should be tightly sealed and kept inside. Regularly spraying ammonia based household cleaners inside cans or bins has been a proven deterrant to bears as well as racoons and coyotes.
Food is not properly secured at campsites. State and local laws require that the bear boxes in each site are properly used. Ice chests cannot be left out in the open when unattended. In the backcountry, cannisters are required.
Food or empty wrappers/containers are left in vehicles. Bears will open car doors or tear through soft tops to get to what smells like food. Considerable damage is often done to cars in the process.
Pet food is left out on porches or decks. Clean up after your dog or cat eats, or better yet, feed your animals inside. Store extra food in airtight containers. If food is kept in a garage or other outside storage area, make sure the container is sealed and the storage area/garage door is closed.
Bird feeders are not properly hung or cleaned up around. Seed, fruit and suet are all natural bear foods. It sends the bears a mixed message to put out things they are supposed to eat and then punishing them for trying to do so. Avian biologists suggest providing only fresh water in the summer months when bears are active. A birdbath will attract just as many birds as feeders. Save the feeding for the snowy months when the birds really need help and the bears are denned up. If you insist on feeding, hang the feeders out on wires so they are away from trees, posts, the house, or anything a bear can climb on to get to them. Feed only seed, and clean up the spills and hulls daily. Many people have success with attaching a trash can lid, tray, or other similar object to the bottom of the feeder to keep the spills from hitting the ground.
MAKE IT A NEIGHBORHOOD EFFORT
Encourage everyone who lives or camps around you to obey the law. No one, bear or human, benefits if all non-natural food sources aren't eliminated. If you don't want to confront neighbors about improper food storage, trash disposal, etc., phone the Mammoth Lakes Police Department on the NON-EMERGENCY dispatch line, 760-934-2011 ext 1, then ext. 7. Explain what is occurring, and ask for assistance. The Wildlife Managment contractor or an officer will respond when available to address the situation.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU SEE A BEAR
Don't be confused about natural bear activity in and around Mammoth Lakes. If you see a bear, watch it and enjoy the experience. It might be just passing through or stopping to get a drink of water or eat a plant or insect that is natural food for it. In that case, you should be the one who modifies your behavior. Be quiet. Don't crowd the animal(s). Take photos if you like, but don't follow or chase the bear. If it is obviously a sow with a cub or cubs, give them all a lot of space. You don't want to seem threatening toward the youngster, which will make the mother very angry and potentially aggressive. The bear will move on at its own pace.
If the animal is clearly after a non-natural food source, such as a trash can or ice chest, it needs to be dealt with. This is also true if the bear is trying to get into a home or car, including being on a porch or deck. Call for assistance if you don't think you can handle the situation yourself. Use the non-emergency number, 760-934-2011, ext 1, then ext 7. If you feel you or someone else is in danger from the bear being too close or aggressive, call 911.
To handle the problem yourself, make it clear to the bear it is in your territory. Be loud, and make yourself "big" by standing tall and raising and/or waiving your arms. Yell loudly or make some other noise, like blowing a whistle, banging metal objects together, or using anything handy. Throwing something like a rock or pinecone toward the bear or at something that will make noise, like a fence or tree, also works. Once the bear moves off, stop what you are doing and watch. If the bear stops, resume the noise, etc. until it moves again. Once it stays in motion, stop again so you are not punishing it for doing the right thing. If the bear climbs a tree, be quiet and leave it alone. This is submissive behavior. The animal will stay in the tree until things calm down and then it will move along.
Use common sense about how close you get to the animal, and NEVER block off its avenues for escape. Black bears will be aggressive toward humans like any wild animal if they feel like they must defend their life because they are trapped. Remember, these are BIG, WILD ANIMALS. You can show dominance over them when necessary without putting yourself in harm's way. Don't ever let children assist you. Explain that scaring the bear away is an adult job. Also, never turn a dog loose on a bear, as these encounters often result in injury or death for the dog, and the bear does not learn anything from it.