Mammoth’s Bear Whisperer resigns because of contract disagreement

The Town of Mammoth Lakes reduced staff because of a $3.9 million projected budget deficit in the general fund primarily due to COVID-19.

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Mammoth’s Bear Whisperer resigns because of a contract disagreement

The Town of Mammoth Lakes reduced staff because of a $3.9 million projected budget deficit in the general fund primarily due to COVID-19.

MAMMOTH LAKES, Calif. — He may be known as the Bear Whisperer, but Steve Searles doesn’t like the nickname. He says he’s a “bear yeller.” But now he’s unemployed because of COVID-related budget cuts and a contract disagreement.

The moniker was given to him by “some Hollywood guy” when they filmed a television show about him years ago, but he manages all wildlife.

“Deer, bobcat, coyote, raccoon—nobody gives a shit about the coyotes, but I work with all the animals,” he said, “Raccoons, birds of prey, snakes, bats in houses—I’m happy to respond. I’ll go on calls to help a blue jay.”

Even if he loves wildlife and his job, Searles, the longtime wildlife management consultant for the Town of Mammoth Lakes, resigned last week because of a contract dispute. 

“It was a hard decision to make,” he said. “I don’t do it for the money. I work for the people. I work for the animals.”

Still, he resigned because of what he considers a 50 percent pay cut. 

The Town has a $3.9 million projected budget deficit in the general fund primarily due to COVID-19 and while the new contract was the same rate of pay, the duration was decreased from 12-months to 6-months with the potential to renegotiate at the end. 

According to Town Manager Dan Holler, Searles was offered $6,276.67 per month from July through December, which is a small increase from the current monthly payment of $6,214.52. 

Because of drought and other human factors, a lot of wildlife is not hibernating in the winter, Searles explained. He said his winter work is just as important as the summer months. 

“If you build a wildlife sanctuary you need to follow up on it just like your dog or your kid,” he said. “You can’t just step out for six months.”

Searles’s reduced contract was not the only Town budget cut. All general employees gave up a 2.5 percent negotiated pay increase, the Town reduced part-time staff, and there were substantial cuts in the recreation department’s summer programs. 

 “We reduced positions in parks maintenance, public works, fleet maintenance, the police department, and engineering,” Holler told me in an email. “We have done some restructuring and will be looking at more as part of our ongoing review of positions, structure, operations and costs.” 

With the summer season well underway, campgrounds full and lodging occupancy hovering at 75 percent, many residents are wondering what will happen without Searles educating the humans and keeping an eye on the wildlife.

Holler did not have an answer just yet, but he said the Town is currently “looking at options to make sure we have wildlife and other animal-related issues covered.”

Searles was hesitant to take too much credit upon his resignation, but his “Don’t Feed Our Bears” campaign has proved to be pivotal messaging and will undoubtedly be his lasting legacy. 

“I get the applause and the free coffee and lots of nice letters,” he said. “But it was never Steve Searles. It was all the people in our community, the visitors who have come and gone, who have worked to co-exist.” 

Telling humans “don’t feed the wildlife” wasn’t working, but changing the phrase to “don’t feed our bears” created a sense of responsibility. That campaign turned everything around, Searles said. 

He doesn’t remember, exactly, when he started it, but he has since printed 80,000 stickers and has photos of the messaging sent to him from every continent in the world. And while the bears were the patriarch of the program, Searles says humans learning how to better co-exist with bears helped all of the wildlife. 

“We conducted a social experiment in this little bubble of a community,” Searles said. “We can argue about everything, but the one thing people don’t argue about at some level— everybody agrees about living with bears.” 

You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make. – Jane Goodall

California condors spotted in Sequoia National Park

California Condors have been reintroduced to the Sierra Nevada and four condors were recently seen flying near the Giant Forest and Morro Rock in Sequoia National Park. 

“Condors were consistently seen throughout the parks until the late 1970s,” Tyler Coleman, a wildlife biologist with Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, said in a statement. “Observations became increasingly rare throughout the latter portion of the century as the population declined,”

Biologists use GPS transmitters to track the birds’ movement, which can be hundreds of miles each day. GPS data produced by these transmitters are used to identify important habitats, locate condor nesting and feeding activity, find sick or injured condors, and locate condors that have died in the wild. 

Condors historically occupied the Sierra Nevada and were known to nest in the cavities of giant sequoia trees. By 1982 the wild population was reduced to 22 birds, all of which were eventually trapped and brought into captivity to prevent the extinction of the species and save the remaining gene pool for use in a captive breeding program.

With the establishment of the successful captive breeding program at the Los Angeles Zoo and San Diego Wild Animal Park, in 1992 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and partner organizations began releasing condors back into the wild in the mountains of the Los Padres National Forest in Southern California.

Now the condors are back in Sequoia National Park after being absent for nearly 50 years.

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