MAMMOTH LAKES, Calif. — Some surprise guests in this mountain resort hang around for weeks at a time, gobbling down pounds of food every day.
Yogi and the others know a good thing when they see it--these well-fed freeloaders aren't about to turn down cozy digs and abundant tasty leftovers. That has made overstuffed black bears a big problem in Mammoth Lakes.
Nestled amid towering Sierra Nevada peaks, the resort has become home to about 30 bears that dig dens beneath houses and hotels, often ripping out building insulation to line their caverns.
"We went under the hotel to check on a plumbing leak and our maintenance man realized he wasn't alone down there," Jeff Modic, property manager of Mammoth Lakes Travelodge, said the other day.
Freeloading isn't allowed, but try telling that to the bears.
For dinner, all they have to do is lumber through town and rummage through trash bins. They're likely to find leftover filet mignon, rack of lamb and salmon from the town's best restaurants.
While black bears in the wild munch on grass, berries, acorns and occasional meat or fish, these bears make a habit of pigging out. And bears in Mammoth have grown to be, well, mammoth--up to a staggering 650 pounds, more than double the average weight.
Like many Western towns that are sprouting amid once-remote forests and mountain ranges, Mammoth is learning to live with wildlife attracted by more reliable food sources--and tasty trash.
"There's no doubt that more and more people are moving into the fringes of bear habitat," said Mike Pelton, one of the nation's leading experts on black bears and a professor of wildlife science at the University of Tennessee.
Along with the hazier boundaries separating human habitats from bear territories, black bear populations are on the increase in most states, Pelton said.
"Those two facts make it pretty obvious there's going to be more human-bear conflict," he said.
Mammoth's problem was compounded a few years ago when officials banned hunting within city limits and established a no-shooting perimeter extending beyond town, turning Mammoth into a virtual wildlife sanctuary.
"We're kind of the Berkeley of the Sierra," joked Steven Searles, Mammoth's official bear manager.
Searles, a glass-cutter by trade, was hired to work with police after a 450-pound male bear strolled through a crowded elementary school playground and a cub bit a resident on the behind.
So far, the bears have been well behaved and "fun to look at," police Chief Michael Donnelly said. Tourists and residents try to get up close and snap pictures.
That's what worries Donnelly. The bears may appear tame but can become "vicious and move with the speed of lightning when frightened or provoked."
Searles had to develop nonlethal ways of banishing the bears.
"We have to show them we're the dominant ones and it's not OK for them to be here," said Searles, a longtime hunter and trapper who has taken to naming the bears--including Bertha and Ace--to keep better tabs on them. "We have to speak their language."
That means showing up SWAT-style at bear-infested sites with pepper spray, bean-bag bullets and flash-bang devices to try to drive the animals out.
"Bad bear! Bad bear!" Searles shouts as he fires the deterrents at the dashing animal, a spectacle that draws teasing from observing police officers.
"I'm trying to get them [the bears] used to my voice as a bad thing," he said.
Pelton said such hazing efforts sometimes work and sometimes don't, but the surest way to attract them is with human food.
So Mammoth is trying to replace as many trash bins as possible with bear-proof canisters.
The bears are still hibernating, but Searles is gearing up for another busy season, with the birth of several cubs, even some twins, expected in town later this spring.
"We'll be ready for them," he said.