The No. 1 Tip For Wildlife Viewing in Mammoth Lakes

Have you ever sat back and watched a mule deer graze on grass? What about a black bear tearing apart a log to look for insects? There are hundreds of different types of wild animals in the Eastern Sierra. And summertime—when many species are the most active—is one of the best times of year to view wildlife and learn more about the creatures that call this place home.

But when we talk about wildlife visiting, wild is the key term. You can do your part to help keep wildlife wild by following the number one rule of wildlife viewing…

Never feed wildlife.

It really is that simple.

How to Safely View Wildlife

Sometimes the idea of feeding wildlife can be tempting. After all, the unique and interesting animals that call the Eastern Sierra home are just begging for a closer look. But luring animals with food puts both you and the animals in danger. You should always view wildlife from a safe distance.

TIP: A good rule of thumb is to actually hold out your thumb. If you can cover the entire animal (including legs!) with your thumb, you are a safe distance away. 

One of the best ways to interact with wildlife that keeps both you and the animals safe is to bring along a wildlife book on your hike. These books are dedicated to identifying different Eastern Sierra species and teaching you more about them. You can find Eastern Sierra wildlife books here in town at the Mammoth Lakes Welcome Center and Booky Joint.

Why Human Food Is Unsafe for Animals

Let’s be real, human food, especially processed food, is not always healthy for humans, let alone a wild animal. Wild animals have a specialized diet that does not consist of processed foods. 

A single taste of human food is enough to turn a wild animal into a “food-conditioned” or habituated animal. Feeding animals or allowing them access to human food causes a number of problems:

  • Animals that search for human food have not forgotten how to forage naturally; human food simply has much more energy, in the form of calories, than their natural foods and becomes their preferred choice of sustenance.
  • Exposure to human food changes animals’ behavior by diminishing the wild animals” instinctive fear of humans. This lack of fear can cause animals to be more unpredictable and dangerous when they encounter humans.
  • Animals that have been fed human food can turn into habitual beggars. Studies have shown animals that beg (also known as panhandling) have shorter lifespans for a variety of reasons. 
  • Panhandling animals can quickly turn into nuisance animals, damaging property or injuring people. These animals pose a risk to public safety. They can also teach their cohorts this dangerous behavior. 
  • Panhandling animals may also die from ingesting food packaging. Garbage and food packaging is just as unsafe for wildlife as it is for you or your pets.

If you love animals, you will not condition them to be habituated to humans through food.

How To Protect Animals From Human Food Consumption

Protecting wild animals from human food consumption doesn’t just mean not purposefully feeding animals. You also need to be diligent about food left unattended as well as scraps and trash. The National Park Service’s wildlife biologists explain, “Black bears, raccoons, coyotes, squirrels, ravens and other wildlife are enticed by human food left in campsites, on picnic tables, offered from an outstretched hand, or in litter.” If you are farther away than an arm’s reach from your food, even if it’s stored in a cooler or backpack, an animal could easily steal it. This includes your cooler or backpack while fishing or picnicking at a lake.

Properly storing food, trash and anything with a scent (think: lotions, soaps, etc.) is extremely important when it comes to protecting wildlife. Since bears are some of the most resourceful and diligent animals when it comes to trying to access human food, proper food and waste storage are usually referred to as “bear-proof,” however, these methods serve to protect coyotes, deer, rodents and birds as well.

Example of a bear-proof lock on a dumpster in Mammoth Lakes.

Did you know a bear has an olfactory sense (its sense of smell) about seven times better than a blood-hound dog? That means a bear can easily smell and consume food stored in a cooler, a backpack or even a vehicle. (Yes, bears are capable of breaking into cars, even when they are locked.) While bear-proof containers don’t mask the smell of food, they do make it impossible for a bear to break into and consume food or trash. Bear-proof containers include bear boxes at campgrounds, bear canisters while backpacking, locked dumpsters for trash or inside a hard-walled building when you are in town.

Dakota Snider

A professional photographer for seven years, including four years shooting in Yosemite National Park, Dakota now works as the staff photographer and digital marketing coordinator for Visit Mammoth. When he's not adventuring with a camera in hand, which is rare, Dakota enjoys time spent with friends exploring the Sierra on foot or skis.

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