Mammoth's 'Bear Whisperer' resigns

Wendilyn Grasseschi
Times Reporter

Mammoth’s “Bear Whisperer,” Steve Searles, is no longer working with the town after he was offered a contract at a reduced rate and refused the contract.
The news hit the Mammoth airwaves late last week, sending shockwaves through a community that has for decades come to rely on Searles’ unique work with Mammoth’s resident ‘urban bears’ and other wildlife.
Searles was employed as a contractor, as compared to an employee, with the Town of Mammoth and he worked through the Mammoth Lakes Police Department as a ‘Wildlife Specialist.’
According to the Town of Mammoth, which held Searles’ contract, and to the Mammoth Lakes Police Department, an offer for a reduced contract was made due to budget constraints in June.
According to Town Manager Dan Holler, Searles was offered the job at about half the rate of his current contract and after thinking it over, Searles chose to resign instead.
Holler said he was disappointed that Searles did not chose to work with the Town on the reduced contract but he also said the Town still needs to find a way to deal with all its wildlife issues, not just bears, and that the Town is working now on a way to do that under the reduced contract cost. He said that the Town had a $4 million budget deficit to fill and Searles’ contract was only one place the Town marked for cuts; others included overtime and training pay for the Mammoth Lakes Police Department, a cost of living increase for employees that employees will not get, some infill from the Town’s reserves, delayed capital improvement projects and more.
“The entire TOML had major budget concerns about budget due to Covid-19,” said Police Chief Al Davis. “The council adopted a much-reduced budget based on the concerns of lack of revenue due to Covid. This was done through many executive level meetings over a two-month period prior to presenting to council. Cuts were made by all departments. was determined that the wildlife position could be reduced based on seasonal activity of the bears. Steve did not agree and did not accept this years’ contract. He voluntarily separated from the town and his contracted duties. Steve was not fired. It was his decision alone.”
Bill Sauser, a Mammoth Lake Town Council member, also said he was very disappointed that Searles did not chose to work with the Town on the reduced contract terms, noting Searles was a friend of his and that he had hoped, if the Town could get through the next six months with Searles on the new contract, they could re-evaluate the situation as the Covid-19 issue implications became more clear and as the Town got a better sense of its economic future.
“I really wish he had chosen to stick with it,” he said. “I was hoping to have a discussion later about how we could fund this position, such as perhaps through Tourism or some other funding situation. Steve is a valuable asset, but we are in very difficult times right now economically and I have to think as a councilman, not just as a friend.”
Searles confirmed that he was offered a contract at a 50 percent reduced terms and refused it.
He also said, “I have no idea, I never saw it coming.”
He said he was called into a meeting with Holler, offered a contract that would be half of what he was making and said it would only get him in the field for six months. at that point, he said, “I took a week to sleep on it, try to figure out what to do. This is my passion, my vacation, my job, my career, this is what I do... and I never had any interest to do anything else. I am the luckiest guy in the world.”
But upon thinking about it more, he said, he realized if he was only working part time, he would not be able to do the job to his satisfaction.
“I am with the bears from the time they are born, ‘til the time they die. If you are going to break that chain, I do not think it is going to work,” he said. “It’s like if you left your dog with no discipline for six months, do you think it would listen to you? These are wild animals, these are bears and deer and I could not imagine me following through on every issue. I was going on seven days a week. You either have your finger on the pulse or you do not.
“If I took six months off, I would lose the trust and respect of the animals, and, of the people, the visitors, the second homeowners, the residents. I think it would wreck my relationship with them all. Maybe it will all turn out ok with the Town, and everything will be ok. But I think it would put me, on the ground that way, in a bad way.”
That said, being told he had to choose was a true, deep disappointment, he said. “Millions of people are out of work,” he said. “Gosh, I thought I had value and now I know how those people feel.”
But more importantly, he said, the whole bear experiment in Mammoth has become something the Town takes pride in.
“Ok, this isn’t about me, this is about the entire community,” he said. “We all chose to conduct this social experiment of co-existing. The whole world watched and at the beginning, I had my doubts as much as anyone else. But then, look what happened. Decades later, the proof is in... that’s all I did, I got people to try a bit harder and now, it’s something we all do. I think I gave out 80,000 “Don’t Feed Our Bears” stickers. They are on cars from the Philippines to Germany. We all had a hand in this. It wasn’t just about me.
“But yes, I am bummed. When the smoke clears and I am out of the mopey chair, I will be looking back more and know again that I have been so blessed. What a ride, what a privilege, to have those people, these bears, to work for.”