Profile: Steve Searles, Mammoth’s wildlife officer

Every small town has its characters and its heroes. Steve Searles is both character and hero in Mammoth Lakes, California.

Mammoth Lakes Wildlife Officer Steve Searles stops to talk during a bear patrol in the Lakes Basin.

Known as the Bear Whisperer to the millions of people worldwide who have watched him on Animal Planet, this wildlife officer is known simply and belovedly as Steve by those who live in this Eastern Sierra mountain town.

He’s hard to miss, towering over six feet four inches, looking every inch the rugged mountain man, yet gentle enough to whisper to bears.

“I’m the luckiest guy you’ll ever interview,” he told me one gorgeous fall morning as we sat outside his house and talked about his work with bears.

“I love my job,” he says, spends most of his time at it, and has come to know well the 26 bears that inhabit the greater Mammoth area – the Lakes Basin, Mammoth Mountain and out to the airport. He works seven days a week, whether patrolling 10,000 miles along 61 miles of road in a single year, or talking to people about bears. “I love meeting people who are afraid, telling them the truth. No one in California has ever been killed by a bear.”

In this interface between wild lands and developed towns is the place where we learn to adapt to living with wild animals. Bear, coyote, cougar, raccoon – all roam this mountainous habitat that is overlaid with the town of Mammoth. We coexist, holding the animals in as much respect as we do fellow humans, sometimes more.

“Coexistence with bears is a metaphor for any challenge to coexist, whether it’s with people of different colors, religions, or ideologies,” Searles says.

It’s Searles’ approach that is so irresistible. He talks to the bears, scolding them when they’ve gotten into something they shouldn’t, talking gently to a mama bear worried about her cub that has gotten stuck in a dumpster, shooing them away. “I’m sensitive to their body positions, they’re sensitive to my tone of voice; I use that constantly,” he says.

Black bear takes a stroll on a Mammoth Lakes street. Photo by SusanMorning.com

The majority of bears in Mammoth are males, both adult and subadult. The five sows gave birth to two cubs each while in hibernation last winter. Searles says the high birth rate was caused by two wet years that produced an abundance of currants and berries for the bears to chow down. The plentiful food gave them enough bulk to sustain multiple births.

Steve works with the Mammoth Lakes Police Department in a proactive way, the only one monitoring bear activity.

“Steve and the officers work very effectively as a team,” says Police Chief Dan Watson. “They are enhanced by Steve and he is enhanced by them.”

On his patrols and in his call outs, Steve carries no fear, although he does carry an arsenal of noise and nonlethal charges for sending a nuisance bear on its way. The bears know Steve, have learned from him. For instance, the other day a bear was somewhere he shouldn’t be, and “he heard me cock my gun,” and hightailed it out of range. “Beyond a shadow of a doubt, bears learn; it’s the greatest thing in the world,” he says.

Chief Watson relates an interesting story of a bear (#86) that wandered into Mammoth tagged as a Yosemite bear. He’d broken into at least five Yosemite houses (he was captured, tagged and released), and disappeared. In July he showed up and got into a Mammoth house. Steve shot him with rubber rounds. “That bear is still here and hasn’t been a problem,” Watson says.

“This is the number one place in the world for coexistence with black bears,” Searles says, giving credit to the people of the town, the water district, police department, hospital board. … “They do the bulk of the work. I’m the front man.

“It fills my heart to do the work and I’m so proud. It’s heady stuff…we’ve learned to coexist and set an example for other communities for what’s possible.”

When he came to Mammoth 35 years ago, there were no bears here. “We destroyed the Grizzly bear in California (by 1922 they were extinct in the state). Grizzlies were black bears’ natural predators. Now they have none.”

The first three black bears that found their way to Mammoth had Yosemite ear tags on them, Searles says, and they multiplied, to a point in the last decade when Mammoth’s police chief hired him to kill the bears. “I was an avid outdoorsman and hunter. The chief asked me to shoot seven or eight bears, wait a few weeks and shoot seven or eight more.”

Steve asked if he could study the bears first, and came up with his plan to manage them, rather than kill them.

“I’m preaching common sense,” he says. “We in Mammoth feel a sense of stewardship. We started with the stickers that say don’t feed our bears.” He adapted the old slogan don’t feed the bears and substituted “our” so people would feel that stewardship. His program is acknowledged around the world for its quality and success.

This young bear found a cache of sunflower seeds near a house in Old Mammoth. Photo by SusanMorning.com

“Today, we don’t feed our bears. I have found no cases of people knowingly feeding bears.” Sure people inadvertently leave dog food outside, or food in their cars, and the bears have phenomenal noses. For example, just the other day, someone left a just-purchased case of high-priced soup in his truck, and one of the bears smelled the contents through the sealed cans, opened the truck door, pierced the cans and devoured the soup. “Bears are problem solvers,” Steve says, “They smell the food, they find it.”

Before people really grasped that dumpsters need to be locked against these clever critters, there were fifty hits a night. Today, Searles says, he maybe sees two hits a day in the more than 450 dumpsters in town. He gives huge kudos to the restaurants; they’ve gone from being the worst offenders to being the best at locking their dumpsters.

Mammoth did experience some hard times with learning how to coexist with bears, but now, Steve says, “we have zero issues, and people are not acting irresponsibly.”

On a typical day, Searles patrols, talking to people, checking dumpsters, checking for problems. “I start in the middle of town and work out in bigger and bigger circles, checking in on roosting trees, known daybeds, making sure the bears are where they should be,” he says.

Since most people know his number (760.937-BEAR) he gets a lot of direct phone calls that are mostly welfare calls…there’s a bear in a car, a deer with a limp, etc.

Late October was bear hunting season in California. It’s also the time when bears are packing on the poundage, preparing to spend six months in their dens. Because of all the water with the late spring, the currants and berries are plump and plentiful. “Between the natural food and people locking their dumpsters, the bears are not causing trouble.”

Mischievous, not malicious

That doesn’t mean, however, that they are not still mischievous. Many of the dumpsters in Mammoth condominium complexes are “bear proof,” yet some bears have learned how to manipulate the latches.

A bear approaches one of these dumpsters, stands on his back feet and slides the latch with his lips, opening the door and lumbering in. It’s dinner hour, just after dark, and he rustles around, finding a meal. After a few minutes, his head appears in the opening, he looks around, then meticulously emerges, slowly and quietly, and scampers off.

Steve tells a sad story of the 500-pound, light-colored, more than ten-year-old bear that turned up dead at the end of September on Rusty Lane.

“How great it was that this big gentle giant had his home here,” Steve says. People continue to send the wildlife officer condolences on the loss of this bear.

Once a bear is gone from its habitat, at least two and a half bears are ready to move into that area. In this case, it’s Ace that’s moved into the big blond bear’s habitat. Fans of Animal Planet and locals remember Ace, the rascally young bear a few years ago that got into considerable trouble. The pitch-black bear with the white diamond on his chest wasn’t intimidated by people, but Steve worked with Ace and eventually got him to move away from trouble. And now the bear’s got his own habitat.

It is a bonus to live among the bears. “The bears brighten everyone’s day. They have a positive effect on people,” Searles says. “Since the beginning of man bears have had a special place in our hearts.” They’re a symbol not only of strength and great love, but of clean air and water, and of living together.

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