UPDATED, 4:42 p.m. The following is the official statement from DFG on this matter:
Summer was only days away from being over, when Mammoth Lakes suffered its first bear fatality late Friday night, when a motorist heading out of town on Hwy 203 accidentally struck and killed a mother bear, leaving her two cubs wandering the nearby roadsides.
The motorist, who is said to be an experienced hunter, was reportedly devastated by the accident, and stayed at the scene, offering any help he could provide to officials.
According to Mammoth Lakes Wildlife Specialist Steve Searles the cubs, both of which he said are only seven months old and somewhat underweight at 20-25 pounds each, are too small and too dependent on milk from their now-deceased mother to fend for themselves.
He is very concerned that they wouldn’t survive on their own for very long, certainly not through the winter. Searles and Mammoth Lakes Police Officer Luke Schwartzkopf, who was also on scene, agreed that the cubs faced death from starvation, attacks from coyotes, or both.
On Saturday morning, Searles suggested the cubs were candidates for rehabilitation, with a professional organization such as the Tahoe Bear League. The TBL facilitates raising orphaned cubs with absolute minimal to no human interaction. “We don’t touch them, hold them, play with them,” Tahoe Bear League Executive Director Ann Bryant said, “unless they come in as infants and need to be hand fed. But not after they’re weaned.”
Searles was in contact from the accident site, providing real time updates to the Tahoe Bear League and Eastern Sierra Wildlife Care. Both agencies were standing by to help, pending any approval that could be obtained from California Department of Fish & Game, which has jurisdiction over the bears.
DFG Warden Will Witzel, who responded to the incident, declined to talk to The Sheet on scene Saturday, and reportedly disagreed with Searles’ assessment. Witzel reportedly told MLPD officials that the cubs were better off on their own, and did not favor rehabilitation. He also reportedly took issue with the age and weight of the cubs, indicating they were older and heavier, and not candidates for rehab.
TBL is a private donation- and grant-funded group, and is a state permitted agency that has dealt with the DFG previously. Bears are kept at the Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care, TBL’s sister agency, which is the only full-fledged rehab facility in the state. Bryant said the Wildlife Care facility allows cubs to come up to weight using what Bryant described as authentic bear dietary nutrition to replicate what they would get from their mother.
The bears are then placed into hibernation until February, at which point the DFG takes the bears and locates them into dens in the wild once they are able to make it on their own.
Bryant said rehab building is a “state-of-the-art, well-thought out, well-maintained environment,” that meets all the bears’ needs. “They’re not miserable, they’re safe. They get to play and grow their muscles. They eat right and have a great time.” She blasted any assertions that cubs are caged and held captive as “outrageous … they’re just excuses, and lame, pathetic ones at that. We have cubs that have been here for the past three months, and they’re doing just great.” Bryant said rehab has been successful with dozens of cubs over the years.
Searles is critical of DFG’s removal of the sow’s body on Saturday morning, which he thought was too early. The body, he said, could have helped keep the cubs corralled, allowing them to be moved to a safer location until a course of action could be determined.
Sacramento-based DFG Information Officer Andrew Hughan, who speaks for this area’s region, stood by Witzel, telling the media over the weekend DFG’s position is that there is “no reason to put the cubs in rehab,” calling their chances of survival “very good,” and describing putting an animal in rehab a “a bad thing.”
Hughan further said it was his understanding that the day of this incident, those gathered, “never addressed rehab.” Searles maintains he and Schwartzkopf both briefed Witzel on the Tahoe Bear League and their procedures. The Sheet was on scene on Saturday and took reports of conversations to that effect.
DFG policy says, “If at all possible, bear cubs should be allowed to return to the wild on their own or through hazing before a decision to capture them is made.
“Cubs may be eligible for rehabilitation and release into the wild only if provisions have been made for the capture, transportation, care, and release of the animal before the cub is placed in captivity. Provisions are to include method of transport, timing of release, and financial resources for the capture, care and release of the animal, including Department costs.”
Searles and other support agencies were ready to assist in capture and transport of the cubs, and the TBL’s services wouldn’t add any cost to the state or the taxpayers.
Still, policy says that, “Approval from the Wildlife Investigations Lab supervisor (or his/her designee) is required prior to allowing an animal care facility to possess and/or rehabilitate a bear.” According to DFG policy, a cub is defined as, “a bear weighing less than 50 pounds.”
Cubs might be candidates for rehabilitation if 1.) There is agreement among Department personnel in the region or district, the statewide bear coordinator, and the Wildlife Investigations Lab (WIL) supervisor (or their designees) that a given cub is suitable for rehabilitation. If agreement is not reached, the decision about whether a cub is suitable for rehab will be made by the WIL supervisor, 2.) Orphaned cubs were encountered before Aug. 1, or obviously dependent on the sow if after Aug. 1., and 3.) Orphaned cubs have had little or no contact with humans and are not imprinted on humans or reliant on humans for food.
Searles thinks that the cubs meet at least the last two of the three criteria, not to mention the weight cutoff limitation, and therefore are eligible for rehab.
“I hope people on a higher level are talking about it and we can do something proactive. I’m really upset about it,” Searles said. Meanwhile, he is keeping an eye on the cubs, and shepherding them to grazing areas and water sources, within the limits of his duties as Wildlife Specialist.
Bryant said she thinks part of the problem with the DFG could be that the state has no shortage of bears, leading in effect to DFG’s diminished interest in the lives of two bear cubs. “They don’t lose one wink of sleep over them,” she charged. Searles, Bryant suggested, is the expert the DFG claims to be. She cautioned that, if this incident is only about some sort of grudge or petty jealousy that DFG has with Searles, then it’s a dispute “the cubs could potentially pay for with their lives.”
On Monday afternoon, the DFG sent a biologist out into the field with Searles and MLPD Chief Dan Watson to evaluate the cubs once again. However, the biologist upheld Witzel’s decision to leave the cubs in the wild.