Only in Mammoth do “Bear Whisperers” remain on the sidelines while the Town crows about record tax receipts.
Mammoth Lakes Police Department (MLPD) released its most current “Bear Beat” to the public from the month of July, which included 25 different incidents involving bears breaking into peoples’ cars, homes, dumpsters, and campgrounds.
MLPD posted the Beat to its Facebook page, which received 148 comments from Mammoth residents in response to the upsurge in bear encounters. The post included no further education to the public other than “keep those windows and doors locked.” To many, it felt like a missed opportunity to share valuable information and education on how to prevent and respond to bear encounters.
The comments were overall pretty negative. Many people expressed wishes for the town to rehire Steve Searles, former Wildlife Specialist, who was let go during the start of the Covid-19 pandemic due to budget cuts.
Meanwhile, the Town has proceeded to build its Community Recreation Center (CRC), which will cost north of $15 million, roughly 300 years of the salary allocated to Searles prior to his termination. In addition, entities like Mammoth Lakes Tourism (MLT) continue to pump money into attracting tourists to the area, without any money allocated towards educating them on how to properly treat Mammoth’s wildlife.
The result? More bear chaos than ever before.
According to Searles, the bear problem has objectively gotten more dangerous. While he doesn’t necessarily wish to get his job back, he does hope that the town can do a better job educating the public as well as MLPD officers in how to best manage bear behavior.
The problem isn’t that the bear population in Mammoth has significantly grown over the last few years; instead, the uptick in bear encounters is largely due to long-time local bears getting pushed out of Mammoth to the Crowley and June area, being replaced by bears without any generational knowledge leftover from Searles’ training regimen – one that, at one point in time, the entire town supported with all hands on deck.
Searles says that training a bear is like raising a dog or a child. “Being reactive doesn’t work when raising your dog or raising your child, or bears. Being proactive is what you have to do. If I had to sit with one particular bear for a day, even a week, that’s what you do with a dog or a kid that you love, to make sure that they are behaving and will keep repeating desired behavior and not repeating undesired behavior. If you have a dog and you just go away for a month and come back and the dog isn’t the same, then that isn’t a surprise. If you didn’t take care of your small kid for a month of six months or a year and came back, you wouldn’t be better off for it,” said Searles. “We have stopped diligently managing the bears. We aren’t actually correcting their behavior, teaching them, showing them things they need to know to get through their lives safely. We are just reacting to them, and eventually that will lead to some dire consequences.”
The changing demographics of Mammoth’s tourist population is a contributing factor to the increase in chaos surrounding bears.
Many tourists from cities who are unfamiliar with wildlife will stay in Airbnb’s in town, think that it is fun to attract bears with food, and then watch the bears for their own entertainment. Searles says that educating this population is critical – especially if Mammoth keeps pumping money into attracting more and more of these people.
But even year-round Mammoth locals seem to be less responsible or caring towards the town’s bear population.
“Our town’s response to the bears was so grassroots and we put almost zero money into it and we all worked together on it, and for that reason Mammoth became world famous for its ability to coexist with wildlife. What I am seeing now is that less and less locals care in the same way. So they leave their trash out, or put out watermelons or cantaloupes for the bears and laugh and get high and think it’s funny and post a video on social media of the bear eating it. Mammoth’s core community is disintegrating, and it’s because of growing apathy, division and ignorance.”
Searles continued: “People don’t go to city council meetings anymore. People don’t care anymore. Instead it’s ‘I’m going to sit home and get drunk. I’m not going to go up and enjoy the magic of the lakes.’ They can’t find coaches for T-ball or local soccer. There is something that is dying within this community, and it’s heartbreaking.”
Searles advocates for more accountability when it comes to people leaving food out, windows open, or antagonizing bears. This includes potential penalties and fines.
“That’s a no-brainer place to start if we really want to get people to stop being careless. The people who are doing super bad things have no ownership and do not go to jail or pay a fine. ‘Even if it was an accident, well that’s too bad, that will be 5k or something’ is the attitude that we should be adopting. Make examples out of people, that’s how the law works and that’s how you get people to stop doing bad things,” said Searles. “Otherwise, we are telling all of these tourists, ‘come here, act like a fool, have a great time, you will have no consequences served to you- and, oh yeah, bring the next group!”
If the number of bear encounters keeps increasing, Searles fears that the Department of Fish and Wildlife will eventually have to come into Mammoth, trap bears, tie them to the backs of trucks, and bring them elsewhere to shoot and kill them.
“I still believe that nobody wants to see that,” said Searles.
Searles advice to all who come through Mammoth during bear season: lock your dumpster, don’t leave your pets’ food outside, control your solid waste, and, if you have a pond in your backyard, at least know that it is a magnet for bears and with it comes a certain level of stewardship and responsibility to own one. And, of course, do not feed the bears.