“Like many people, I grew up scary hearing campfire stories about bears, but humans are much more dangerous to other humans than bears are. We seem to need an enemy, but bears are not our enemy.”
Thus saith the Bear Whisperer.
Actually, his name is Steve Searles and he doesn’t like being called the Bear Whisperer. His real title is Wildlife Officer for the town of Mammoth Lakes, California.
Why Kill, When You Can Train?
Thirty-seven years ago, Searles was hired by the town to exterminate bears. There were too many bears in the tiny town, and he was asked to kill sixteen.
Searles went into this job expecting to fire his gun and kill black bear. But once he started observing the bears, he realized that there was no reason to kill them. Instead, he realized he could train them.
Bears are smart. According to Searles, they are second in intelligence only to primates. Bears are also hungry. By nature, black bears are vegetarians, with a natural diet of roots, grasses, tubers and flowers. By nature, black bears are also self-regulating. When food is scarce, they stop reproducing.
Getting enough food is a full-time job for most bears, and is doubly critical to their survival.
And, just like humans, black bears like to sleep at night. Unlike their cousins, the raccoon, bears are not nocturnal.
After observing bears and learning their habits, Searles decided that rather than killing them, he would convince them, as he says, “to work nights.”
Persuasion, Familiarity and, Sometimes, Extra Persuasion
Using a combination of persuasion and familiarity, Searles convinced the bears to change their ways and have dinner in the wee hours. Just like a paper route, Searles has a bear route. Beginning in spring, he finds each bear and personally visits it every day. Moving from den to den, he talks to them, familiarizes them with his scent and makes sure that they recognize him. As the years have gone by, he’s learned their language and can recognize and imitate a bear vocabulary of 25-30 words.
Hence, the Bear Whisperer.
Of course, there are times when the a bear doesn’t want to be persuaded, or the lure of human food is just too great. This is when Searles has to use a stronger method or persuasion.
Or as he puts it, “When the combination of their words and my words doesn’t work, I bring out the shotgun and that always communicates.”
Still, Searles has never shot, drugged or killed a bear. When he does fire his gun, he’s firing rubber bullets, bean bags and pyrotechnics. The gun is used to scare the bears and correct their behavior.
And it works.
Riding up the Panorama gondola at the top of Mammoth Mountain, I met a long-time friend of Searles. “Steve has been fired by every sheriff we’ve had,” he told me. “A new sheriff never understands what Steve does. They don’t see why they should pay him. So they fire him and then the bears become a nuisance. Pretty soon, he’s back on the payroll.”
Current Chief of Police Dan Watson, who took over in Mammoth Lakes three years ago, tells it a bit differently.
“I understood the value he brings to the Town, its residents and visitors, and the wildlife population. I didn’t fire him and have been a strong supporter of the work he does from my first day.”
In addition to training bears, Searles has also helped train area humans, mostly on proper garbage disposal, keeping dogs away from the bears and respecting the bears’ need for solitary privacy.
If you encounter a bear, at Mammoth Lakes or anywhere, Searles has one piece of advice.
“Enjoy it. Thank your God. Kiss your kids. And, take a picture.”
A Bit More on The Bear Whisperer and Mammoth Lakes…
And, while you most likely won’t see any black bears if you visit Mammoth Lakes (not if Steve Searles is doing his job), there are plenty of other amazing sights to see in this lovely part of California and the High Sierra.
Here are some highlights:
- Devil’s Postpile National Monument. One of three sites in the world where you can see geometric basalt towers, this National Park Service unit is also the home of Rainbow Falls.
- Mono Lake. An inland sea famous for birding, Mono Lake is also known for beautiful and unique tufa formations.
- The Mammoth Lakes Basin. Five major lakes, including Lake George, Lake Mary and Horsehoe Lake, make this glacial basin a breathtaking spot for hiking and fishing.
- Yosemite National Park. The eastern gate of Yosemite National Park is only 20 minutes away over spectacular Tioga Pass.
For more information, please visit Mammoth Lakes Tourism.
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