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The Guy Who Chats With Bears

October 30th, 2007 by Celeste Fremon

grizzly-2.gif

Today the LA Times has a feature
on a man named Steve Searles who purportedly “talks” local Mammoth Mountain black bears out of bad bear behavior rather than having the authorities shoot the beasts. A bear whisperer, they have (naturally) dubbed him.

He tries to think like a bear. He studies their habits and social hierarchy. He has participated in Native American ceremonies to learn what the tribes perceive as bears’ spiritual nature. He even has been known to spread his own urine to drive away territorial animals.

“I’m the biggest, baddest, meanest bear in this town — that’s what I want them to think,” said the 48-year-old. “I’m the alpha male, and they must obey me.”

Actually, Searles doesn’t so much talk as use negative conditioning—loud noises, shots with pellet guns, and the like— to discourage certain undesirable activities on the part of the bear . (He also has gone on a campaign with local residents to change the humans’ undesirable behavior—namely their habits of leaving out unsecured, bear-attracting garbage and restaurant food scraps.)

According to the Times, the California Department of Fish and Game officials are “dubious.” And Mammoth Lakes Police Chief Michael Donnelly praises Searles “out of the box” methods as “things Fish and Game or nobody else had ever suggested.”

Well, not exactly. What the Times doesn’t say is that Steve Searles’ methods are not new or unusual at all. They are slightly more primitive versions of the “bear management” policy that biologists at Glacier and Yellowstone Parks have been using for well over a decade to deal with problem grizzlies:

It used to be that when bears
in Glacier or Yellowstone became too unnervingly acclimated to people, they were trapped and relocated to wilderness areas where they were less likely to have human contact. Then biologists rethought the whole thing and realized they might be removing all the more socially balanced members of the local bear population, leaving the weird, loner, Ted Kaczynski bears—not exactly an ideal plan. Now, unless the griz proves to be agressive, biologists have found it’s far better to leave the bear in place, but repattern its behavior using “aversive training”— banging on pots, shouting, rubber pellets, tossed bean bags and an occasional bout of barking and chasing by specially trained Karelian Bear Dogs.

On the other hand, maybe that’s an even better story: with absolutely no formal training in biology, Steve Searles has devised the same successful bear management method that it took a team of experts years to design.

Not bad. Not bad at all.

(And, no, this isn’t a social issue. It’s a bear issue, and we’re really into bear issues around here.)

Posted in bears and alligators, environment | 10 Comments »

10 Responses

  1. L.A. Resident Says:

    I saw Steve Searles on a T.V. program, it didn’t look like he “talked” to the bears, and all I saw was a guy who “shooed” the bears away with air horns and pellet guns. I didn’t realize the shooing away of bears was called “bear management policy” and that it took years to develop. I have “shooed” away dogs from my trash cans, I guess I am now an expert in “dog management policy”.

    There was a loony bird named Timothy Treadwell aka “Grizzly Man” who talked and lived among his “friends” the grizzly bears until he became lunch for a hungry grizzly bear.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UxYWnNoiZ-M

  2. Woody Says:

    It’s not the bears’ fault. Society failed them. We need a government program to help them recover.

    I’m not too sure about leaving “friendly bears” around. If a bear has lost its fear of humans, then it needs to be a worry. And, it’s not like “bad bears” are going to move in to human habitats to take the place of the ones removed.

    Now, find me someone who can talk to squirrels and deer and tell them to stay away from my house. Animals have no respect for property rights. Same with ants.

  3. richard locicero Says:

    Has he been on Steve Colbert?

  4. Sparkarooney Says:

    Check out The Great Bear Foundation at http://www.greatbear.org for more information about bears and bear issues. This organization does good work and accepts tax-deductible donations.

  5. Woody Says:

    Why don’t we put electronic collars on the bears so that he can text message them?

  6. L.A. Resident Says:

    When a bear wanders down from the mountains into my other home area of Duarte, Ca., the bear is usually “escorted” by 2-3 news helicopters, 2-3 news vans, police, fireman, and animal control. It is a sight to be hold. See the last vicious bear to terrorize the residents of Duarte in this video, run, run, run for your life.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eiAiBirmDvo

  7. Celeste Fremon Says:

    LA Res, I think you’ve got it exactly right. He’s the Bear Shoo-er. Doesn’t sound nearly as romantic, does it?
    When I first began to read the article, I too thought of that idiot, Timothy Treadwell. But then I got deeper into it, I saw that, counter to his “I’m the biggest baddest bear” nonsense, he was mostly just making things unpleasant for the bears. Grizzlies, however, are a bit more complicated because they WILL eat you if they have a mind to. California black bears might hurt you inadvertently, but they very rarely attack. (In my opinion Treadwell was an arrogant SOB who deserved to be eaten, but it was not okay that he brought his girlfriend into his arrogant fantasy and got her killed as well.)

    I know the notion of “bear policy” sounds a bit over the top, but having interviewed various terrific grizz biologists over the years, attended (in all seriousness) a Congressional hearing on grizzly policy, and having observed the creatures on multiple occasions myself, I’ve come to appreciate the complexity of grizzly issues, especially in and near the National Parks.

    Sparkaroony, LOVE the greatbear.org people. Chuck Jonkel, their prez, is one of the most famous of all the grizz experts of the last 30 years. I’ve met him, and he’s…. very colorful. A totally cool dude.

    Woody, try cinnamon with ants. Sounds nuts. But it completely icks them out, and has the added advantage of not poisoning the neighbor’s dogs.

    PS: They do collar problem bears so they can track ‘em. I’ve flown with the trackers. (Yes, I am a bit of a nut case when it comes to wolves and bears. But I’m not one bit sorry about it.)

  8. Celeste Fremon Says:

    Just saw the video. Yikes. Poor cub!

    My dog once treed a three-year-old female griz that we’d seen the year before as a cub with its mom. (By the time it came in our yard it was a young adult and so had separated from its mother.) It returned off and on that whole August. Eventually, it and the dog nervously worked out a set of mutual boundaries and all went fine. But, it was, nonetheless, a grizzly, so we humans kept a very respectful distance.

    That same summer, however, A VERY LARGE MALE showed up in the yard one night, possibly intending himself as a suitor for the small female. We called the rangers right away when we saw him as we did not think anything good would come of having him as a regular visitor. (This was big, bad, hells-angel-done-time-in-prison bear.) Even the dog audibly swallowed her bark when she glimpsed this critter out the second-story window..

  9. Woody Says:

    Watch out for the bears with tattoos.

  10. listener_on_the_sidelines Says:

    Even the dog audibly swallowed her bark when she glimpsed this critter out the second-story window.

    Oh, yeah. There’s B*A*R*K

    And, there’s BmAoRmK

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