Why This Former Hunter Became the Wildlife Protector of the Sierras

Defending both human guests
and animal residents.

Known in Mammoth Lakes area as “the bear whisperer,” wildlife officer Steve Searles thinks of himself as more of a “bear yeller.”

In the mid-’90s, he got orders to rid the ski destination from the black bears frightening guests and wrecking havoc on restaurant dumpsters. A well-known trapper and hunter, Searles was tasked with killing 16 bears. But after studying their habits, he made a huge shift.

“Dead bears learn nothing,” he said. “If you kill one, another will come in from the mountains to replace it.”

According to the Los Angeles Times, “His ‘aha!’ moment came late one night in 1996 as he studied them at the town dump. He was watching a group of the bears feed when the diners suddenly darted off into the woods. Moments later, a 600-pound bear — nicknamed Big — emerged from the forest.

“Searles realized then that, although they are docile, the bears had a chain of command.

“’Big taught me that if you’re tough you shouldn’t have to carry a gun,’ he says.

“That led to his aggressive yet respectful relationship with the bears, built on knowledge, not bullets.”

You can read about Searles’ unique approach to keeping the bear population in line here.

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