Bears aren’t normally seen rummaging near the tony suburbs of Malibu, California, but a few years back a resident black bear kept turning up on wildlife cams in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains just outside town. Further north, they’ve become relatively commonplace in rural Ventura County, too. Parts of east Los Angeles are now seeing bears wandering into hill towns, picking through garbage, scaling trees.
Curious about why bear sightings have seemingly increased at the fringes of urban Southern California, I reached out to Steve Searles, a bear behavior specialist. Searles has been the Wildlife Specialist for the Mammoth Lakes Police Department in California’s central Sierra Nevada, since the ’90s, known among experts for devising a no-kill bear management program. He starred in Animal Planet’s show “The Bear Whisperer,” and has worked training Yosemite rangers in bear encounters. The man knows his bears. He’s said as their population increases, we may see bears wandering down to Orange County beaches one day. I had to know more. Sitting on his front porch in Mammoth during a light autumn rain, we discussed the cultural shift required to prepare city folk for cohabitation with bears. After Grizzlies went extinct at the turn of the century (they are currently being studied for reintroduction to California), black bears had space to expand, and expand they did: from 18 in 1933 to 15,000 in 1982, to 35,000 in 2019. Searles shared what to consider, what to re-learn, and what to actually be afraid of when it comes to human/bear cohabitation. Training bears for coexistence is the easy part, Searles says. Training humans is where the real challenge lies.
DN: You’ve said we may see black bears wandering the sands of Newport Beach in the future. Is their population actually growing that fast? I suppose they’ve already been spotted on Ventura County beaches.
SS: I might have been exaggerating a little bit, but there are examples of that in Northern California, British Columbia, and Oregon. It’s not uncommon—bears are highly adaptable. We’ve only enhanced their habitat and their ability to get food. In my experience, it’s the ponds, golf courses, and manicured yards that help the bear. Southern California is a really lush place. We think it’s the city, and it’s overwhelming, but bears would love to swim in your pool, soak in your jacuzzi, and eat your lawn. They’re going to take advantage of that for years to come.
So they can adapt anywhere?
There are about 35,000 square miles of wilderness habitat in California and over 35,000 bears, so they need to continue to make do with what they have. That’s one per square mile of habitat. That they’re down in downtown Mojave, wow—they’re moving to any habitat they can find.
Can you explain the reason for the increase in the population?
By eliminating their only natural predator just a short time ago [grizzlies], what checks and balances are there? They’re not good for a food source, they taste terrible, we don’t wear them as coats or use them as doors on our teepees anymore. So yeah, they will continue to expand their numbers.
With our populated environments being more inviting to bears, do you think there are going to be more and more concerns about negative interactions, like people shooting bears?
Is there a fear of human-bear interaction? Sure. Say there’s a bear in the middle of the day in an L.A. suburb. They’ll send a S.W.A.T. team, put up helicopters, lock down the schools. It’s a big damn deal. In Mammoth in the middle of the day to see a bear is common. People don’t call the police or 911. They don’t scream. They enjoy it and it enhances their day. They tell the story for years to come. It’s just what you’re used to. I can’t speak to the future but millions of dollars and thousands of hours have been spent studying human/bear interactions. I see it through a different lens: I think our community is an ongoing example of having very little negative interaction with bears. There’s no way to put your finger on how much goodwill, great energy, and positive things have happened from co-existing with our bears. People come from all over the world and from every state in the country to visit Mammoth just to see bears.
The amount of bears hunted in California has gone down for six years in a row. What do you make of that trend?
A hundred years ago if you shot a bear in your village, hoisted it up in a tree and started butchering it, all your neighbors would come over to see, congratulate you, have their picture taken, share the meat, and have a beer. Today if you pulled up a bear in southern California, or Mammoth, and started butchering it in the front yard the police would be called. It would be offensive. What a change in one generation of time. People think it’s distasteful and are put off by it. But it’s totally legal. So that’s the social part of it. It doesn’t have any financial value, any health value, any benefit as clothing or shelter. To go out and work your ass off to find one and shoot it is a big job. And what do you get from it at the end of the day other than the thrill of killing it? Just a bunch of work for very little quality.
What about the case for population control?
There are people who will make the case for population control, but if you shoot eight percent of any population, including humans, it will not affect the population. I believe the science that it won’t affect the population as a whole. And where people think—I think mistakenly—that hunting is the way to mitigate nuisance bears and trash management problems, well, who’s going to hunt in somebody’s town? It’s illegal in towns, it’s dangerous, and people are going to honk their horn at you. You want to go out in the woods with your buddies and hear the birds chirping. Never, ever is hunting a tool to offset human/bear conflict. It doesn’t make any sense. There’s not a town in California you can shoot a bear in.
Speaking of something to fear, what do you think about the effort to reintroduce grizzly bears to California?
Scientists were here last week from the University of California [UC Santa Barbara], incidentally. They’ve been working on this since 2007 with plenty of funding and really smart people studying each aspect: food, water, habitat, and reproduction. I’ve seen science papers on it for decades. My views are that it’ll never happen. Is there enough food? Yep. Enough water? Yep. Enough habitat? That’s questionable with all the highways. But social carrying capacity and the will of the people? Nobody wants an apex predator reintroduced back into California. Has that changed? No.
Duarte bear, healthy female about 100-120 lbs. good coat and recovered just fine pic.twitter.com/cuE0bwboOw
— Cal Fish & Wildlife (@CaliforniaDFW) April 25, 2016
You have been making the case about emotional responses to bears for years.
I went to the IBA [International Association for Bear Research and Management] conference in 2001. I gave a presentation on feelings and love and it was the first time anyone had presented that topic. There’s no science for how you feel. Whether you fear me or I fear you, or I respect you or you respect me, they’re emotions, not science. So they’ve started studying how people feel about bears in their midst and I think that’s paramount in the discussion.
Sounds like you don’t see a big reason to reintroduce grizzlies?
I think it’d be great. I’m all for it. We would take a step in putting things back in balance that were out of balance, and we’re always doing that. With California condors, we spent a lot of money and effort raising them in captivity, and today we have a population of condors again. There are tons of examples like that, and sure, I absolutely support the idea. All the stuff I do with bears, I don’t try to teach them to juggle or ride a unicycle. I try to emulate mother nature and what they’ve forgotten. What we’ve mind-tricked them out of remembering what they’re supposed to do and how they’re supposed to interact with us. As a society we bred that out of them. Sure, I use modern-day tools and rubber bullets, but I re-introduce their natural fear of humans. I put them on edge when they’re around traffic or cars. I do things to get them to remember where they are in the order of things. Either I’m super good at it, or they wanted to be that way all along and remember really quickly, or a combination of both.
I often feel like I have to look out for human men in campgrounds more than bears.
You should carry bear spray for men, not for bears. This year there has been an abnormally high number of negative interactions in North America in grizzly country. As soon as spring started we saw attacks on people by grizzly bears in Yellowstone and British Colombia; though it is still very statistically unlikely. I’ve seen articles trying to analyze the uptick in human/bear conflict. But in Mammoth it’s been one of the slowest years I’ve ever experienced.
Can we attribute a slow year to your work on co-habitation?
It’s the population of Mammoth, the people at the hospital, water district, school board, the kids, the housekeepers, the cooks, the business owners—all of them are dialed in and doing my job for me.
How do you make bears nocturnal?
By messing with them at three in the afternoon at the post office or wherever they show up. At three o’clock at night, if a bear’s walking through the post office parking lot, he’s not doing anything wrong. We ask: Is it on the pine needles or on the pavement? If they’re on the pavement they have to accept my rules. If you’re on the pine needles, I’m kinda yours. I’m gonna go out of my way to make it peaceful and quiet for you, and keep people away from you. There’s no noise, no rubber bullets. We reward them for good behavior.
How would you handle that in a city where there are no pine needles?
There are greenbelts and lovely parks. The bears know where those connectors are. Just let ‘em do it. If a bear is in a tree in an L.A. suburb you don’t have to dart it. Just leave it alone, give it some time. It might be up there for five or six hours. When it gets dark and there are no people around he’ll shimmy down and split. For the people who live on the fringe [of the city], there should be some give and take, ebb and flow. And is that flow four or five miles into an urban area; or five hundred feet? Or 50 miles? For sure it’s going to be more and more. It’s how we deal with it, how we respond to it that’s super important. The cops down south don’t have the tools I have. If I zing a bear with a rubber bullet to get out of here and move on with their day, the bears learn something, the people have learned something, and you continue to build a better relationship for both species of animals.
It’s great that when we have a good relationship with them, bears can point things out to people about ourselves.
Speaking philosophically, in every country in the world that has some species of bear, they have been paid homage to, since the beginning of recorded time. They have been carved into rocks. They have been on the front piece of the canoe. They have been prayed to, sung to, dreamt about. Bears are fascinating to people. There is absolutely something to learn from them. Imagine being a 500-pound bear who could walk around grabbing whatever you wanted from people, like a giant, or like Popeye who could kick ten men’s asses. What human wouldn’t do that? But do bears do that? No. They’re shy and they’ll go, “Oh, okay, I’ll move along. I was just asking.” There’s a lot to be learned.
What is your advice for the people who live in populated areas?
One of the biggest things you could do to correct what’s about to happen is to secure your solid waste. Be responsible for your trash. We generate tons of it, and we leave it sitting on the curb every Thursday morning. And in that trash can is an apple core. The bear comes around, opens the trash can, looks around, and finds that apple core (which everybody knows, if you’re a bear, is the best and most nutritious part of an apple). So he’s like, “Wow, every Thursday I come along here and they’re putting out the caviar for me. These people are so nice.” Bears don’t eat like goats; they’re very sensitive and highly alert to what they consume. When he smells the apple there are thousands of bytes of information on that apple because it was in your mouth. He knows whether you’re a male or female, smoke or don’t smoke. Their sense of smell is thousands of times more powerful than yours. So you’re having a conversation with the bear. He’s clear about the conversation you’re having with him, and that he’s having with you. He shows up every Thursday morning, never fails you, and is just so stoked. So when a bullet from the warden hits him in the neck and he dies, he is perplexed. “What went wrong in our relationship? We had it good, me and you.” So to the people living in southern California who put their trash out every Thursday morning and call [California Department of Fish & Wildlife] saying, “Could you come, your bear is in my trash”—Nope. That’s your trash, and that’s your bear. You own it. So [urbanized southern California] is packed with raccoons, possum, coyote, and all of these things are going to continue to expand. Whether it takes a decade or five decades, the number one thing is public education: understanding what your role is as a human animal (you’re just an animal) and what the truth is. The second biggest step is to stop feeding them.