Wildlife Viewing in Mammoth Lakes

Oct 15, 2020

One of the exciting things about visiting national forests is the opportunity to view wildlife. The key thing to remember is that all animals in the wild are just that—WILD. Though some animals may appear friendly and tame, all wildlife can be unpredictable and even the cutest little squirrel can bite you. Never feed animals! It’s not good for them and can put you in harm’s way.

Bears: Of all the forest animals you are likely to see, the black bear is probably the most exciting. Black bears can be brown, blonde, cinnamon or black. Bears are omnivores (they eat everything), but their diet is 80 to 90 percent vegetation. Bears consider odorous products to be food (like toothpaste, makeup and suntan oil), and they can recognize food and food containers by sight and smell. Store food and smelly items appropriately inside lodging and/or bear cannisters when not in use to avoid a bear intrusion. 

Marmots: The yellow-bellied marmot is the largest member of the squirrel family. Marmots can be found from the alpine zone down to approximately 7,000 feet and tend to live among rock slides and ledges instead of in dirt burrows like their cousin, the groundhog. They eat flowers, grass and other green foliage. Marmots hibernate during the winter, so they must gain all their weight during the short summer growing season or they can die of starvation while hibernating. Marmots can often be observed at high-elevation meadows, lying on top of boulders and basking in the warm summer sun. 

Mountain Lions: The mountain lion is one of North America’s largest cats, averaging 7-8 feet long. Lions are solitary creatures that prey upon large animals such as mule deer, elk and bighorn sheep but survive on small animals as well. California’s mountain lion population is estimated at between 4,000 and 6,000.

While it is rare to see a mountain lion in the Eastern Sierra, sightings and encounters occur every year and should be immediately reported to local authorities. 

Mule Deer: Mule deer are characteristic to the Sierra Nevada and are usually a dark gray-brown, with a small white rump patch and a small, black-tipped tail. Mule deer migrate to higher elevations in spring and summer, and to lower ranges in fall and winter. 

Tule Elk: The smallest of North America’s elk, the tule elk is included on the endangered species list. Weighing up to 700 pounds, elk bulls and cows have reddish summer coats with darker heads and legs and can stand 4-5 feet tall. Only males have antlers, which grow in the spring and shed each year after mating season. Gold prospectors almost wiped out the tule elk in the 1840s, but its numbers have now increased to over 900, mainly because of three reserves in California’s chaparral region. Tule elk can be spotted at lower elevations along the Owens River near Big Pine and Bishop.

Wild Mustangs: The American mustang is more accurately termed the “feral horse.” Feral horses are those whose ancestors were domestic horses that were freed or escaped from early explorers, native tribes, ranches, cavalry, etc. to become free-roaming herds across the United States. Currently there are only an estimated 42,000 mustangs still roaming free on public lands in the West. Locally, wild mustangs roam the open valleys of the Eastern Sierra.

Bighorn Sheep: The Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep are a unique form of bighorn found only in the Sierra Nevada Range. These short, stocky animals live in some of the most remote and rugged regions of the Eastern Sierra. Sierra Nevada bighorn are rarer than the Florida panther or the California Condor. They are one of the most endangered mammals of North America. Mountain lions, humans and domestic sheep introduced into their mountain range are thought to be the primary causes for their rapid decline. To date, it is estimated that only about 170 adults are living in the Sierra Nevada Range. Bighorn sheep have been spotted locally at Rock Creek Canyon and along Tioga Pass Road west of Lee Vining.

Birds: Over 300 species of birds call the Sierra Nevada home. Valley floors, alpine forest, streams and mountain lakes are all host to abundant wildlife and ideal for birding. Be sure to stop by the Mammoth Lakes Welcome Center, a Designated California Welcome Center for local tips and a list of recent sightings.

Chickarees: The chickaree, or Douglas squirrel, lives in the dense, higher-elevation forest of Mono County. The reddish-gray or brownish-gray squirrel makes its home in the canopies of trees and is one of the noisier squirrels, with a large selection of calls and trills. Look for chickarees stockpiling conifer cones at the base of trees for the upcoming winter, as chickarees do not hibernate during winter months.

Coyotes: The coyote is a member of the dog family and is native to California. It is similar in size and shape to a medium-sized domestic dog, but its tail is round and bushy. Coyotes found in the mountains can weigh up to 50 pounds and have thicker, silkier fur than their desert counterparts. Coyotes are very adaptive, exist on a varied diet and can be found both in the wild and occasionally suburban areas. They survive on small rodents, fruits and vegetation. Coyotes are not your average dogs—they are not to be messed with. They are smart, and learn quickly. Coyotes should never be fed or approached by humans.

Pine Marten: Pine martens are small, rare members of the weasel family. Their fur is soft and thick, varying in color from pale buff or yellow to reddish or dark brown, and they have long, bushy tails. The animals’ throats are pale buff; their tails and legs are black. Mostly active at night, pine martens are excellent climbers and will pursue prey such as red squirrels or chipmunks up a tree, and pine martens may climb trees to avoid danger. They’re solitary but curious animals. In winter, long hairs grow between the toe pads on pine martens’ feet to keep the feet warm and enable them to travel on snow.