“On every continent in the world, since the beginning of time, humans have paid homage to bears. Through petroglyphs, the written word, in stories, in songs- we’ve carved them, put them on the front of our canoes, and have worn their hides. They’ve commanded a place in our hearts; they’re mystical, magical, powerful, call it what you will,” explained Mammoth’s Steve Searles.
Maybe it’s because bears seem to defy time. The scientific community has spent millions of dollars studying the life clock of the bear; when they’re in den, they don’t urinate, defecate, hydrate, or feed for up to five months. A bear comes out of hibernation with no muscular atrophy at all, exhibiting the same muscle tone and agility as it did pre-hibernation. A fertilized egg can stay dormant in a mother bear’s uterus for months without experiencing any development at all, until eventually growing only when she finally decides to den.
Unlike herd animals (say, deer or elk), bears are independent thinkers. When they cross the street, they don’t mindlessly do it because they’re following their herd. Instead, they look both ways to see if cars are coming.
“The truth is that, whether you’re a pagan or you’re an astronaut, people are universally fascinated with bears,” said Steve Searles.
Searles might be better known as Mammoth’s “Bear Whisperer”- that was the name of the television show that led to his national notoriety as a bear expert. But what led to national recognition started off as a humble, experimental profession within the town of Mammoth Lakes.
Searles moved to Mammoth in 1976. An avid hunter and trapper, he was hired by the very first Town Manager in the mid-’80s to help control the bear population. “It wasn’t like how Mammoth is today,” said Searles. “We didn’t hire people over the internet or from other communities. Instead, we went around town and said ‘you’ll be head of this or that’.”
And just like that, Searles was hired as Wildlife Officer. His given objective was simple: correct bear behavior, or, if need be, put the incorrigible down.
When Searles began his career, there was more misinformation about bears being printed by the California Department of Fish and Game than there was correct information.
“What’s the biggest misconception people have towards bears? The whole thing is a misconception,” exclaimed Searles. “One of the big ones is that black bears prey on humans.
In fact, they’re herbivores,” said Searles. “So if you wanted to stuff your pants with lettuce then maybe you might get nipped.”
Nobody has ever been killed by a bear in the state of California in its entire history. Thousands have been killed by large cats and dogs. You are 350-times more likely to be hit directly on the head by a bolt of lightning than you are to be touched by a bear.
So, with no formal training, Searles decided to approach his given task with the goal of killing the least amount of bears possible.
It was early in his career when he realized what needed to be done in order to keep the bears in line without using lethal force. It was 4 a.m. and he was staked out at a large, open dump in town. He was observing the bears feasting from the garbage, when suddenly they scattered out of the light. Soon after, he saw the bear that he’d come to know as “Big” waltz in towards the dumpster.
“They all paid respect and homage toward Big by foregoing what was the most important thing to them: food. Right then was when I saw that they had a pecking order and a true, deep sense of respect towards each other. I realized that, if I could emulate being the biggest, baddest bear in town and garner that same respect, I could teach a few dozen bears how to stay in line instead of trying to teach a million visitors in our area how to avoid them,” said Searles.
He began to spend every day and night studying the bears, trying to understand them. When they fell asleep, he’d lay down and sleep with them. When they woke up, he’d get up and walk with them. He got to know every bear in the community on a first-name basis, and could recognize each one at a glance.
Through forms of classical and operant conditioning, he utilized non-lethal intimidation devices (including bean bags, pyrotechnics, flash- bang devices, aerosols, rubber bullets, all of which were typically deployed out of a 12-gauge shotgun) to discourage the bears from repeating certain problematic behaviors.
He met with wild success. Not only did the bears comply, but he found that through generations, mother bears would teach their young the “rules” of the community. Over time, the population continued to stay in line, and it got easier and easier to train them.
“It was best for everyone to train them instead of just kill them,” said Searles. “In California, when you eliminate a bear, you have 2.5 bears competing for the former bear’s habitat. These are ‘wanna-be’ bears – bears that aren’t familiar with the intricacies of the habitat they’re inheriting, which, in the case of Mammoth, means when the bars close and music stops. So the less bears you kill, the less newcomers you have to worry about training.”
Mammoth rapidly became the number one place for the coexistence of humans and black bears in the world.
“In retelling my stories so often and now that I’m writing an autobiography, I am really coming to terms with the magnitude of what occured here. It’s just absolutely amazing,” said Searles. “In such a small amount of time, the community made such a difference, and people came from all over the world to stay here and learn by our examples of how to coexist with wildlife.”
Searles explained that the key to success was the entire community being on the same page. “Everyone in Mammoth had a vested interest in this, and that’s truly why it was a success. Although I got to pull the trigger and solve the problem, it was also the school district, the water district, the hospital district, the list goes on,” he said.
The last 911 call Searles responded to was on July 10, 2020. His position as the town Wildlife Officer was terminated in response to dubious Covid-19 budget cuts.
Soon after, the second largest single blaze in the history of California came, which burned hundreds of thousands of acres of land from the coast all the way to just outside of Mammoth.
Many of the other animals from the fire – the herd animals and short-legged animals – burned up and perished. But the bears were smart enough to navigate the direction of the fire and escape it. Subsequently, many of them ended up in Mammoth and are still here.
“For the first time ever in my career, I saw a huge influx of bears into the community, which was a result of escaping the fires. It brings me to tears that the Mammoth community was willing and able to host these refugee bears. It was an oasis for them,” he explained.
However, a result of the fires was more mixing between bears.
“The arrival of the new bears pushed some veteran bears out of this habitat who I’ve known for their whole lives, and I haven’t seen them since. And now I’m getting to know the new bears. It’s pretty bad timing for me to lose my job, considering there’s a whole new population of outsider-bears that need to be trained,” said Searles.
Now, Mammoth is relying on just the police force to deal with the bears, a lot of whom are new, young hires from the city.
“It’s nothing against them, but when it comes to bears you simply don’t know what you don’t know. And they didn’t go to the police academy to deal with bears; they have a lot of other stuff to do throughout the day. They can’t devote all their time to just bears the way I did. I mean, I’d camp out at a spot for three days straight sometimes, just waiting for a specific bear to show up. But when it did, I would correct its behavior. And every single time, the bear would stop that behavior,” he said.
The combination of the influx of bears from the fire, Searles no longer on the job, the wave of inexperienced cops and lack of management, as well as the influx of a confused/fearful population coming to Mammoth to escape Covid-19, has truly been the perfect storm of paranoia and fear.
Not to mention- the fires and droughts have decreased the options for food sources for the bears. There wasn’t a current crop last year and there won’t be one this year. The matured grass and plants available only fill the hunger void temporarily in a bear’s stomach, but don’t give them the actual nutrients they need.
“What would you do if you were starving?” asked Searles, before answering his own question: “I would steal,” he said. “And that’s exactly what the bears are doing during this year’s hyperphagia.”
*Hyperphagia is the time period during which a bear stocks up on calories in preparation for going into den*
They are getting into any food source they can, and are adapting to finding the most easily-accessible food.
“I’ve seen things going on that I’ve never tolerated in my career, that’re being done every day by the bears. They’re like our kids or our dogs – if you let them do whatever they want, they will keep expanding that. It’s just nature – the ‘if you’re going to put up with that, I’ll try this’ mentality,” said Searles.
Due to this, Searles is deeply worried that his training regimen in Mammoth will be undone over time. “I think you’ll find that every person in this town doesn’t feel good with how we’ve conducted ourselves recently when it comes to the bears. And the Town Manager and Chief of Police are the sole reasons for why it’s come to this point,” he said.
The average price of a home in Mammoth Lakes is now $1.5 million dollars. Many people have bought second homes here without even visiting, done over the phone and paid in cash. Before Covid-19, 67% of the homes in town weren’t even lived in – they were just “trophy homes” as Searles describes them.
In the wake of Covid-19, more and more people are escaping the cities, escaping the violence, the disease, and the homelessness. The influx of these people, who know nothing about bears, has pushed out many locals in the community – people who have been well-versed in how to handle bears since their youth. The bear education in the community has degraded through the changing of the town’s demographics; in many ways, this mirrors the movements of the bears themselves.
“Things aren’t getting better. It doesn’t matter if you look at it globally, nationally, statewide, or town-wide. Things aren’t getting better. That’s why the people for whom money is no problem are flocking here – they want their families to live, to survive. And that’s all that’s happening with the bears, too,” said Searles.
“And I congratulate them – they’re getting out of the city like mice. But at the same time, it’s a harsh learning curve to adapt to living here. This goes for bear education, but also weather conditions – snow tires and chains, avalanches, sub-zero conditions that can be truly dangerous.”
He asks the newcomers to learn from long-time locals about how to treat the bears, and try to follow their behavior – to be patient, calm, and thoughtful towards the bears. And, of course, not to feed them.
In return, he asks the locals to do the same towards the newcomers, despite the harsh reality of the unfairness of the modern world. “Right now, even though we’re blessed with clean water, clean air, good sewage, good food, good music, everything that Mammoth is known for, it’s still, ‘f*&k you, get out of here, you’re not one of us.’” he said. He pleas for this to change.
His former job included interfacing with outsiders 7 days a week, educating them in how to properly conduct themselves towards bears. He says it’s the same thing needed towards newcomers – compassion transcends species.
“Our job as locals is to be hosts, to be stewards of this sacred land. Be understanding that people come here to get well, and that they’re probably struggling and looking for peace – just as a lot of us long-time locals were before we ourselves found Mammoth,” said Searles.
“If human beings have learned to co-exist with the bears, have learned to love the bears, why can’t they learn to do that with each other? We should be treating each other with the same empathy and peace that we as a town have come to show the bears. The fact that we can’t seem to use that same formula with each other is disheartening.”
The division between people is happening all over. “Especially in politics,” Searles pointed out.
7 out of 10 cars in Mammoth today have guns in them. “My question is, what are they afraid of?” he said.
“People show up here packing a week’s worth of food for a 3-day camping trip, armed with their grandfather’s revolver and paranoia. They bring their pre-anticipated fears, and what they’ve learned from the ‘stupid box’. But it’s up to us to welcome them, to teach them, encourage them – and to show them what wellness and clarity look like,” he said. “On the smallest scale up to the largest scale, that’s the only way our species is going to keep on.”
Searles wrapped up the interview by pointing out the differences between humans and bears.
“Unlike humans, the bears don’t have any of that fear and anxiety and penis ownership, and all the s*&t that makes this world crazy. They simply don’t do any of the heinous s*&t that humans do. They don’t know evil – and, in fact, they represent the exact opposite.”
Searles is currently writing an autobiography, with the working title of “What The Bears Know”.”