mammoth man 

Alpha male shares his ursine art By Loreth Beswetherick Looking up at well over six feet of hairy American male, scraggy limbs planted firmly atop the new municipal furniture, arms splayed wide with voice booming down at you "bad bear, bad bear go home" from the rafters of Whistler council chambers, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were getting an inkling of how a bruin might feel confronted by this maverick. But that would be a mistake. The key to communicating your message to bears, says Mammoth Lakes bear man Steve Searles, is to try and speak their language and not to try and impart on them your own human sentiment. Searles was in Whistler last week as a guest of the municipality and the Jennifer Jones Bear Foundation, to share his self-developed art of non-lethal bear management. The RMOW and the bear foundation spilt the cost 50/50 to bring Searles, his wife and baby to Whistler for the week. Since his technique was put in place in Mammoth four years ago, the resort town, with a similar size resident bear population, has had a zero kill rate. Searles thought he was coming to the Canadian town that killed so many bears to "kick some butt." He conceded, however, he had had some serious misconceptions. Before the town of Mammoth started to come to grips with its bear problem it had 650 open dumpsters. "I assumed you must have some of the same problems because you were shooting so many bears. But, man oh man, this town is clean. It’s gorgeous," Searles said. He added he was impressed with Whistler’s $60,000 commitment to install an electric fence around the landfill. "You put your money where your heart is. You guys seem to have a real grasp on it. I congratulate you." He said in terms of bear management, Whistler was acting appropriately. The trash is being taken care of. Education is being addressed. The next step is to learn to talk to the bears and to do this Whistler has the right tools in the shed. Searles was speaking at a public session the evening of Wednesday, Oct. 27 after spending a full day with Whistler and North Vancouver RCMP, Whistler bylaws officers, B.C. wildlife biologists, teachers, trainers, conservation groups, the chair of the Human-Bear Conflict Committee and conservation officers from across the province, including the Ministry of Environment’s director of enforcement, Donna Humphries. The rest of the week he spent assessing Whistler’s terrain and training local officials in his techniques. Black Bear Task Team co-chair Sylvia Dolson said workshop participants were initially skeptical but were very receptive to Searles. She said there are now "plans to take the program province-wide." The Mammoth police department first turned to Searles to help with its ‘bear problem’ several years ago. Searles, a glass contractor, had experience hunting and trapping and he had solved a coyote problem by killing the marauding pack’s alpha males. He told the group gathered in council chambers the town employed him to do nothing but watch the bears for a full year. He watched how they communicated and he began to identify a hierarchy or pecking order. It wasn’t size that made one bear dominant over the other. It was attitude and the dominant bear, or alpha male, was always in charge. Searles decided, if he couldn’t get through to humans, many of them transients or tourists, how not to cross the line with bears, it might be easier to teach the bears how not to cross the line. "I came up with a set of tools I could use to address the bears from a safe distance and show them I was the dominant one. I decided to play the role of alpha male." His tools include an arsenal of bear bangers, rubber bullets, pepper spray and other noise makers. The town thought he was nuts but gave him carte blanche and within six months, the program was working. Searles is on call seven days a week, 24 hours a day. He responds only to the more complex problems now, otherwise he has the town’s 13-strong police force well trained to do the job. He said he makes it "crystal, crystal clear" to a bear when it is somewhere it shouldn’t be. He yells at it, shoots at it and sprays it with pepper until it is in neutral territory. He said an old bear can be taught new tricks and this is where he disagrees with local conservation officials. Searles said a garbage habituated bear can be taught to stay away from trash and he has a track record to prove it. "Bears are adaptable. They are quick to change." The fact there are so many bears around towns is indicative of that. He said if Mammoth has 30 resident bears now, there would only be three in the area if the town wasn’t there. Searles said it is not the fear of pain caused by rubber bullets that keeps a bear away from a problem spot. That would be a human assumption. "It’s that we show our dominance and command respect." He said bears do this themselves by huffing, popping their jaws and banging their feet on the ground. "With the bullet I am letting my voice touch him," said Searles. "He thinks I am God — the biggest baddest bear in the world, and we are having a discussion and I have showed him who is boss." Searles said if he was in Whistler, he believes he would be able to achieve a zero kill rate with his method. "If I moved to Whistler I could handle the problem alone." He said the town, however, has enough personnel to make his program work and the terrain is not that different. He said Whistler, in fact has lush undergrowth with a good natural food source for bears compared to Mammoth. Searles compared shooting problem bears to drawing from the deck — there is always a chance of a wild card. When a bear is killed, a new one moves into the territory. It’s better, he said, to have a trained bear in the area doing his work for him. Searles said he wanted to emphasize, however, that he was not the "saviour of all bears" and he would be the first to shoot one if he felt a human was in danger. "I’d shoot 10 bears in a row before a child, a person, a member of the community or a guest got hurt." Other communities in Sierra County are adopting Searles’ techniques with varying degrees of success. Sea to Sky conservation officers used an adapted version of Searles’ techniques for the first time in Whistler this past season. They said they reduced the need to kill problem bears by 100 per cent. There were still, however, more than 18 bruins destroyed this year. "I can’t say enough about how in line your local authorities’ — the guys in the uniforms — attitude is with mine," said Searles. While the Black Bear Task Team had the ears of the province’s wildlife management officials in town last week, they hammered home the need for a full-time conservation officer to be stationed in Whistler. The RMOW has requested an officer be based out of the resort, in addition to the two already stationed in Squamish. Dolson said it was acknowledged by the group that Whistler has set new standards in bear management that have likely paved the way for the province in general. "They were thanking us. They said you guys in Whistler have done a bang-up job."

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