Here in the eastern Sierra Nevada all of us—including the bears—are getting ready for the first Atmospheric River of the season. Throughout the fall our local bears, which number about 30, have been foraging all over town as they gorge themselves in preparation for the Big Sleep. Unlike most other mountain communities, people and bears here in Mammoth Lakes coexist pretty amicably. And on the very rare occasion when we don’t get along—meaning a bear has to be put down—it’s humans who are at fault.
There are approximately 30,000 black bears living in California’s 28,000 square miles of mountainous terrain, which means it’s fairly crowded. And the more we encroach on the bear’s natural habitat, the more likely human-bear interactions become. More than thirty years ago, our town took the unusual step of hiring a wildlife specialist whose job is to manage the bears and educate humans.
Steve Searles, also known as the Bear Whisperer, is a one-man force working to ensure that bears and humans coexist peacefully here in Mammoth Lakes. Steve, who had his own show on Animal Planet for several years, says the task is fairly straightforward: teach humans not to leave food for bears and they won’t acquire a taste for it. In other words, managing bears begins with managing humans.
When people leave garbage outside or food in their cars and campers or when dumpsters are left open, bears take the easy path. Why work for food when there’s a buffet right in front of you? Once accustomed to a diet of easily available human food, the bears also discover they can break into homes and find food. And that’s when Steve is forced to give them a dose of tough love. Using a shotgun that fires rubber bullets, bean bags, and various pyrotechnic devices, he scares the bears off while also teaching them about unacceptable behaviors. Steve says the bears are a quick study, and over time they learn to stick to their natural diet.
It takes a village to make this concept work. In cooperation with the police department and the town, Steve campaigned to replace regular dumpsters with bear-proof models. He also designed the Please Don’t Feed Our Bears sticker you see above that local residents and business owners display. Over the past three decades, Steve has built what experts consider the model program for bear-human coexistence, and he has talked to communities all over the country about how they can better manage their bear and human populations.
We’ve come a long way, and for the most part our bears are very well behaved. The biggest challenge for our town continues to be tourists. Unfamiliar with our bears, visitors don’t take us seriously when we implore them not to leave food or even food wrappers in their cars and campers because bears will pry open the doors and destroy the interior of their vehicles. We also stress that bear-proof dumpsters don’t work if you fail to latch them properly. Some visitors learn how serious the issue is when a bear breaks into their car or camper; others drop a bag of garbage and leave, never seeing the end results of their carelessness. These kinds of issues aren’t indicative of a bear problem, but a human one. Apparently we don’t learn quite as quickly as the bears.
Check out the amazing Steve Searles on Facebook, and watch videos about his work here and here on YouTube. Steve, we are grateful for all that you do to foster peaceful coexistence with our bear brothers and sisters.