California’s ‘Bear Whisperer’ Is Out of a Job

“We’re equipped for it,” he said. “They’re trained by Steve.“

Just over 8,000 people live in Mammoth Lakes, an outdoor destination for many of California’s city dwellers, along with about a dozen bears, who nap on its golf greens and turn up near the ski lift, but usually know to keep their distance from people.

More than 1.5 million tourists visit the area yearly to ski, hike, mountain bike or simply take selfies amid the rugged peaks. And both Mr. Searles and Chief Davis said the town has been “packed” with visitors in recent weeks in spite of the pandemic.

Many tourists and campers learn about proper food storage in bear country the hard way. Even a months-old candy bar wrapper, left in the back seat, can prompt a black bear to bust a car window. Mr. Searles, 62, said he has handed out thousands of his famous bumper stickers: “Mammoth. Don’t feed our bears.”

In other parts of California, the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife captures and euthanizes black bears that have become habituated to humans and cause property damage, or issues permits for owners to do it themselves.

Mr. Searles, a longtime hunter, was originally hired by the town to kill bears that were causing havoc. Instead, he got to know them, and has worked to show the town and nearby areas that the animal can be trained to avoid people and their belongings. He opposes euthanizing bears that cause problems, preferring shouting and other aversive conditioning to tell bears when they aren’t welcome. He only hazes them if they get out of line, which can mean setting off firecrackers, shouting harsh words or, occasionally, firing shotgun-propelled bean bags at them.

“I never met a bear that couldn’t learn,” he said. “I mean, I don’t try to teach bears geometry or how to ride a unicycle.”

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