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A Bear of a Problem in Mammoth Lakes

TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER

Bertha lived under a house on Ridgecrest Drive. Loser lived under the porch of a nearby cottage--at least until she got too fat for the crawl space. Twinnie lives in the woods with her two offspring but takes many of her meals, uninvited, at the Summit Condominiums.

They’re everywhere: beneath the former Jehovah’s Witnesses meeting house, in the foundation of the Travelodge, in the breezeway of the local halfway house, underneath a score of homes and abandoned buildings.

Black bears have become permanent residents of this town.

Between 30 and 40 live inside the six-square-mile boundaries of Mammoth Lakes, in the eastern Sierra Nevada. And it’s not only here that bears can be found in a density unheard of in the wild--they are becoming a common phenomenon in populated areas across the country.

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As the outer limits of modern society bump up against once remote forests and mountain ranges, wild animals discover that civilization is often a more reliable food source than nature.

As a result, communities as far east as Pennsylvania are struggling to cope with a thriving bear population that is growing bolder, more mischievous and occasionally dangerous.

“At no time in history have we had as many bears and people living in close quarters,” said Gary Alt, who has studied black bears all over the country and is now chief bear biologist for the Pennsylvania State Game Commission. “How we work out this awkward coexistence will probably determine whether we have bears and other big animals around at the end of the next century.”

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An earlier generation of Americans shot critters that wandered too close to town. But many modern pioneers recoil at the notion of destroying animals for any reason. Moreover, killing is an undesirable option for recreational communities, like Mammoth, where mountain scenery and wildlife are staples of the local economy.

But the live-and-let-live policy encouraged by many urban emigres can create perils as it has in Mammoth, where bears wander the streets, oblivious of traffic, or hang around restaurant trash bins, amusing the tourists while slowly losing the ability to survive in the wild.

Officials in Mammoth not only prohibit hunting within the town limits, they established a no-shooting perimeter that extends well beyond the town.

“What we’ve done is create a huge wildlife sanctuary with its central food source in the middle of town,” said Police Chief Michael Donnelly.

Bears are not the only wildlife attracted to it.

“The bears take the trash, spread it all over and that brings in an enormous number of raccoons, coyotes and other animals. We’ve started to see signs that cougars are around,” Donnelly said.

The chief is the first to admit that his department reflects the prevailing ethic when it comes to killing wild animals. “I’m not a hunter, and none of my officers are hunters,” he said.

But after one 450-pound male bear wandered through a crowded elementary school playground and a rambunctious cub bit a resident on the behind--the only attack on a human to date--Mammoth officials decided they had to do something.

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Last year, they hired a bear manager--someone to wean the bears off garbage and chase them out of their in-town digs.

“This is a town that wants to get along with nature,” Donnelly said. “It may be naive when it comes to bears. But that’s what we have set out to do, live with them . . . at a safe distance.”

The town hired Steve Searles.

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A lifelong trapper and hunter, he has taken to his job like a stern uncle saddled with a brood of overgrown delinquents. On call 24 hours a day and armed with pepper spray, exploding flares and rubber bullets, Searles has expelled bears from at least a dozen buildings this year.

“Our goal is to reintroduce the bears’ natural fear of humans, through nonlethal means,” said the tall, rangy Searles, a bit bearlike in his own shambling gait.

He figures he has “pepper-sprayed, flash-banged or rubber-bulleted” every one of the town’s bears at least once. Paid by the hour, he made $10,000 for the part-time work last year.

During this, his first full year on the job, Searles has responded to 140 calls. In the process, he has come to know all of the Mammoth Lake bears, the trash bins where they eat as well as their indoor and outdoor denning areas. He has even named them.

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Holiday, for example, got her name from the street, Holiday Vista, where she lived in one building, foraged for food in the trash bin of a condominium garage and swam in a neighbor’s pool.

In a small patch of woods in the center of town, surrounded by homes and shops, Searles pointed to several recently dug dens.

“You’d never find this many bears living so close together in the wilds,” he said. “This little patch of forest could barely support one bear, let alone the three or four that have been living here.”

But feeding off town garbage, the Mammoth bears don’t have to compete for nature’s erratic bounty of berries and nuts. Thanks to human food waste, many of the bears have grown hugely fat. Well over 600 pounds, some of them are twice the average size of adult bears living in the wild.

Female fertility has also benefited from the fat content of castoff human food. Instead of having one cub, Mammoth bears regularly produce two and three offspring each year.

“There are a lot more calories in a half-eaten Big Mac than in an acorn,” Searles noted.

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Next spring, Mammoth Lakes will greet its fourth generation of bears born and raised in town. And as Searles struggles to evict the bears from their urban lairs, he and others fear that it may be too late to force many of the animals back into the wild.

“There will come a time, if it hasn’t already, when these bears won’t be able to make it in the wilds,” Searles said.

If they remain in town, however, many will eventually come to grief.

So far this year, nine Mammoth Lakes bears have been killed by cars. One adult survived being hit by a car but makes a pathetic sight as he limps around town on an injured leg.

Two others that kept breaking into buildings were shot after the owners obtained permits from the California Department of Fish and Game to kill the animals.

“I’m afraid every one of the bears that is allowed to stay in town will probably die at human hands,” Donnelly said.

Or as Leslie Dawson, a University of California naturalist, put it: “Town bears wind up dead bears.”

Living in unnaturally close quarters in an urban setting, bears are prone to disease as well as accident. Last summer, Searles had to put down a sick cub, which had been frothing at the mouth while children at a local campground tried to play with it. An autopsy found that the bear did not have rabies, but it did not determine the nature of its illness, according to Searles.

The bears clearly do not want to leave. Rousted from under one building, they soon find another.

The animals now recognize Searles and his truck. Many run when they see it approaching.

Searles and chief Donnelly say the effort will not succeed if the town doesn’t get more serious about cutting off the food supply.

Only about half of the town’s 600 lidless trash bins have been replaced with bear-proof garbage containers. The new containers are often shunned by people who can’t or won’t deal with the latching mechanisms.

Even when the new bins are in place, it is not uncommon to see garbage piled up next to them.

“Humans are lazy,” Donnelly said. “We get over a million visitors a year, and most of them are from urban areas where you set your trash out once a week and expect someone else to take care of it.

“There are also people living here who think of the bears as their pets. One lady refers to them as ‘my dogs’ and puts out 50-pound bags of dog food for them. We’re trying to change attitudes like that, but I’m afraid it’s going to take years to bear-proof Mammoth Lakes.”

Humans actually have been in this area much longer than bears, who were first seen in Mammoth only about 40 years ago.

“The country around here was too high and didn’t have enough food to support many bears,” said Leslie Dawson, who lives near Mammoth Lakes.

Bear fat was a valuable commodity to the area’s original human inhabitants, the Paiute Indians. But to get the fat, Dawson said, the Paiutes had to trade for it with people who lived on the west side of the mountains, where there were bears.

Dawson believes that many Mammoth black bears are descendants of some that wandered away from Yosemite National Park--about 20 miles northwest--when officials there began closing down park dumps.

So just as people are moving toward the wilderness, the bears are moving toward the people. The encounters can be costly for both species.

A couple of winters ago, a bear did $300,000 in damage rummaging for food in an enclave of summer cabins in Plumas County in the northern Sierra. At Yosemite National Park, hungry bears have caused $500,000 in damage to parked cars this year. This past Monday, four of the Yosemite bears--including a mother and her two cubs--were destroyed because they would not stop breaking into cars and threatening people.

In Colorado, 35 bears were killed within the last two years after blundering onto busy streets or causing damage to someone’s property, according to Rick Knight, a wildlife biologist at Colorado State University who is studying the effects of human population growth on wildlife habitat in the Western United States.

“Colorado is growing at the rate of about 90,000 a year, and the fastest growth is right on the edge of national forests and traditional wilderness areas,” Knight said.

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Meanwhile, black bears are expanding their range in many other parts of the country. A series of wet winters has stimulated more abundant berry crops in some places. In parts of the eastern United States where agriculture is declining, bear habitat is expanding as pastures revert to forests.

In Pennsylvania, where hunters are allowed to kill up to 20% of the bear population annually, the number of bears has tripled since the 1970s, biologist Alt said.

Much of the growth is in the Pocono Mountains, where the human population is also surging. “In one community, we’ve had them in kitchens, under houses, walking the streets, same thing as Mammoth,” Alt said.

In California, the Fish and Game Department allows hunters to shoot up to 1,500 bears every year.

Nevertheless, the number of bears in traditional bear habitat in the state “has reached its limits,” now exceeding 20,000, according to Bob Stafford, ranking bear biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game,

“We’ve seen [them] for the first time in Monterey County, and they have expanded their southern range to Mt. San Jacinto near Palm Springs,” he said.

In the San Gabriel Mountains, east of Los Angeles, Fish and Game officials estimate that there are about 200 bears. And as foothill communities push farther into the mountains, more bears are showing up on city streets, foraging in garbage cans, cooling off in swimming pools and spas--and occasionally breaking into cars in search of food left inside.

Three years ago, a bear named Samson became a celebrity after he was filmed by TV crews lolling in a hot tub in Monrovia. Samson was caught, and his life was spared after fans prevailed on Gov. Pete Wilson to intervene.

Although Samson is now confined to a zoo, police in Monrovia have reported 36 other bear sightings since June.

Animal control officers in the San Gabriels are using some of the aversion techniques--pepper spray and nonlethal projectiles--employed by Searles in Mammoth. They are getting the same mixed results.

“Black bears are incredibly determined creatures,” Searles said. “It’s hard to break them of bad habits.”

But Searles keeps at it--dreading the day when the town tells him it’s time to kill the bears. A seasoned hunter, he admits he has grown a bit softhearted about some of his burly charges.

Mammoth Lakes’ professional bear manager says he may have made his job more difficult by naming them.

“Fish and Game tells me that was a mistake. They think I should have just given each one of them a number. They’re probably right. That way, when the day comes, it’s not Yogi or Billy you’re pulling down on, it’s just Number 22.”

Yogi, by the way, has a passion for hops and can usually be found near the trash bin outside the Mammoth Brewing Co. Billy lives in the campground across from the McDonald’s on Sierra Manor Road.

Times staff writer Roberto Manzano contributed to this story.


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