In Mammoth Lakes, Bear Management Issue Polarizes Police, Leadership, Public

bears-in-campgrounds.jpgA special edition of Bureaucrat Beat today so that we can read, in their entirety, a memo from Mammoth Police Officers and a response from Councilman John Eastman.

The Town of Mammoth seems to find itself in a polarized place with the police on one side and the public and Town Council on the other.

After the Town Council had unanimously voted to work on a contract to hire Steve Searles as a wildlife specialist, Councilmen John Eastman and Neil McCarroll held one brief meeting to start discussions on a proposal. Two days later, the Mammoth Police Officers Association wrote a memo and sent it to Town Manager Rob Clark. Councilman John Eastman shared it with us. It reads as follows:

Dear Mr. Clark,

The Mammoth Lakes Police Officer's Association has been watching with interest the ongoing political maneuverings of the Town Council and Steve Searles over the need for a TOML employed Wildlife Management Specialist. It is clear that a decision will be made shortly regarding this controversial issue and we can assure you that the MLPOA will support whatever decision is made by the Town Council and the Town Administration.

It is our desire, based on a majority vote of the Association members, to express to your our experiences working with California Black Bears and with Mr. Searles over the last 10 years in the hope that it might shed some light on this topic from the field officer's perspective.

Bears in Mammoth Lakes are a fact of life. They were here before Mr. Searles started working as a Wildlife Management Specialist under Chief Mike Donnelly and they will continue to be here long after all of us have retired. We can state emphatically, and back up with statistics, that the bear problems in Mammoth Lakes have not changed appreciably going back as far as 1997, aside from fluctuations that can be attributed to biological cycles.

We have achieved a heightened public awareness of bears, which have resulted in bear-proof dumpsters and bear-proof food storage lockers in local campsites, but even with those changes the bear problems have remained basically unchanged with or without Mr. Searles. Furthermore, the practice of hazing bears has failed to drive the offending bears into the backcountry due to their heightened fear of man. The practice has only succeeded in moving the bears from one town food source to the next; a fact that is consistent with what Department of Fish and Game officials have asserted from the beginning.

MLPD officers have and will continue to respond to wildlife calls. We handle all of the calls for wildlife management service 24 hours a day and generate reports for each bear contact. Mr. Searles has required officer assistance in the past in order to write wildlife contact reports. Mr. Searles responds to a smaller percentage of calls and sometimes is unavailable. Consequently this issue about the need for a Wildlife Specialist seems to us to be moot in light of the fact that each officer that deals with these calls is a wildlife specialist.

The myth that Mr. Searles possesses some extraordinary knowledge or ability with Black Bears that is over and above that of our officers is arguable. On one morning, officers responded to the Old Mammoth area at the Mill City Tract regarding a distressed and injured bear. Mr. Searles was called and also arrived. The bear was located and was in fact very distressed and smelled of gangrene. Attempts to get the bear to move into the forest failed and the bear just sat there with labored breathing for well over thirty minutes as we watched him.

Mr. Searles was advised that the bear was gangrenous and that he should be put down. Mr. Searles stated that the smell was only fecal matter and that the bear should be left alone. Mr. Searles was told that fecal matter and rotting flesh smell distinctly different, but he was not moved and officers on scene deferred to Searles' "expert opinion" as was our practice and left the bear in place.

Later that night, another call was received regarding the same bear. The bear was only a few yards further into the forest from where he had been the day before still breathing labouredly, but immobile. Mr. Searles eventually destroyed the bear and discovered that maggots were festering over a gangrenous wound under the bear's fur. The bear suffered needlessly for many hours and the public was placed in needless danger from a wounded bear, all based on the wrong "expert opinion".

Regarding economic matters, the TOML has several unfilled/frozen positions. The police department has two unfilled positions. The town budget is tight and OT has been cut. It seems unwise at best to create a politically motivated seasonal/ part-time position and hire a new employee or contractor to fill that position when that job is being handled very well by existing employees with better training, greater professionalism and greater oversight.

If the TOML makes the decision to hire Mr. Searles in which department would he be working? Would he be used half the year to write parking tickets or work the front desk? The police department would be the logical choice for the Wildlife Specialist position, but we already have an Animal Control Officer. Mr. Searles wants a uniform and has worn MLPD patches; will he be held to the same standards as current employees? I.e. will he be asked to conform to our Policy and Procedures manual, report writing, uniform, grooming, ethics, discipline and record keeping standards? Do we have the right to conduct a background investigation and/or psychological screening? Will he have access to RIMS or CLETS? Will he be enforcing TOML municipal codes? Can he write citations or testify in court? If so will there be Brady issues? Will he be given PC 832 powers? Our experience has been that Mr. Searles has and will lie to the media and the public in the process of promoting himself and his agenda.

In addition to honesty issues there are concerns over Mr. Searles' ability to handle the stress that can come with the job. On one occasion, an MLPD uniformed officer was forced to disarm Mr. Searles because he lost control of his emotions and was a danger to himself and others. Therefore we have grave concerns over any connection between Mr. Searles and the Mammoth Lakes Police Department.

Steve has been carrying loaded concealable firearms on calls, yet has refused to comply with the requirements of his CCW permit. He has not qualified since the fall of 2006 and failed to attend the most recent CCW holder's qualification range that was held on November 8, 2008. His permit requires him to qualify annually and to take an 8 hour CCW legal update every two years. The signatories below are opposed to the hiring of Mr. Searles as a Wildlife Specialist.


Det. Jesse Gorham
MLPOA President

Sgt. John Mair
MLPOA Exec. Vice President

Officer Andrew Lehr
MLPOA Vice President

Councilman John Eastman, recently leading efforts to deal with the considerable bear issue and public needs, responded to the officers' opinions with this statement. Eastman writes:

In an email to the Mammoth Lakes Town Council Members from their Town Manager, Rob Clark stated to his council members that he had instructed the employees of the MLPOA – Quote – "that it is very important for us to work cooperatively with Steve Searles, because there is a perception in the community that if we are not working with him (meaning Searles) we are not doing everything we can to address wildlife problems." I agree with Rob's statement, and it is likely true.

Yet, from reading the November 14th MLPOA memo, it is very clear, that the MLPOA did not take Mr. Clarks' recommendation to heart.

Because, in 10 of the 12 paragraphs in the memorandum, the MLPOA either questions Mr. Searles bear management capabilities, or they personally attack him.

Before I address the memorandum in greater detail and therefore lose everyone, I feel it is important to say, that I believe the citizens of Mammoth Lakes have already spoken as to how they feel about Mr. Searles and his wildlife capabilities.

Already, on two separate occasions, supporters of Steve Searles have packed our council chambers. Whether Mr. Searles is "the Bear whisperer", or not, that is not the issue. Because there is the perception within our community that we are all better off, including the Bears, when Steve Searles is watching out for our wildlife. When Steve is not out there, we worry. When Steve is out there, we feel more comfortable. Simply stated, it is a matter of "TRUST". The citizens "trust" Steve Searles. That's why for every one "bear call" to the Mammoth Lakes Police Department concerning Bears, there are 20 additional Bear calls, or more, to Steve directly. People "trust" Steve to handle Bear situations appropriately. This is a matter of the will of the people, and presently the MLPOA appears to be "tone deaf" to the will of the people. End of discussion!

The MLPOA accuses the Town council of "political maneuverings", then proceeds to submit a "political memorandum" themselves.

The MLPOA states that the memorandum was "based on a majority vote of the Association members". Then why have two of the "Association members" contacted me individually and told me they were never shown, nor consulted about the memorandum,
and didn't even see it until several days later?

Why did the MLPOA "state emphatically"- "Bear problems in Mammoth Lakes have not changed" over the past 11 years. I'm just guessing, that we currently have more bears and more bear incidents in Mammoth Lakes than we had 11 years ago. Just a guess!

The MLPOA states that each officer "is a wildlife specialist". I'm sorry, but once again, we seem to be reverting back to "Alice in Wonderland."

Paragraphs 6,7 and 8 detail an incident where Mr. Searles did not "put down" a sick Bear. In hindsight, Mr. Searles could/should have "done the deed" less than a day sooner. But instead, Searles gave the Bear one final chance to survive. Shame on Steve for giving the Bear every chance of survival, and giving it a few additional hours. For every distorted example given, in hindsight, where Steve could or should have done something different, there are 10 similar stories where Steve has done what people feel was correct. I'll match every bad story about Steve, with 10 Good stories.

Enough! The reality of the November 14th MLPOA memorandum is that it has, in effect, pitted the MLPOA against Steve Searles, against myself and against the majority of our citizens.


John Eastman

We in the Bureaucrat Beat newsroom devoted this air time to the Mammoth bear issue since it has become a community and political matter of significance that goes beyond wildlife and into human life of the town.

It is our hope that Mammoth leadership will find a way to serve its people.

And, with that, this is Benett Kessler signing off for Bureaucrat Beat where we await your word on our lives in the Eastern Sierra and beyond.

16 Responses to In Mammoth Lakes, Bear Management Issue Polarizes Police, Leadership, Public

  1. Tryinghard November 12, 2013 at 12:24 am #

    I think the reason most people have the first thought to call or reach Steve regarding bear incidents, is due to the lack of awareness that MLPD handles this genre of concern. It is foreign knowledge to me until reading this article, “that each officer that deals with these calls is a wildlife specialist” (5th paragraph). Can you further detail your definition of someone called a “wildlife specialist” and how each officer has acquired this certification? Although it is costly to have Steve in light of the positions competing for town finances: Do you really believe that your staff is capable of protecting the wildlife while protecting TOML’s citizens?

    In regards to Steve’s clout as the “bear whisperer”, if MLPD is capable of handling these wildlife issues, why is that not talked about more frequently? Where can I access a log describing the numerous cases where MLPD has carefully handled a bear problem without Steve’s help? Why would the consideration of having Steve join the MLPD to continue his position, if the current staff is more than capable of handling bear issues?

    There should be more formal requirements if the position Steve is occupying remains funded in the TOML. Who can create this job description? Do we have the resources to look outside Mammoth to other wildlife experts? Probably not because we do not have the financial means. We may not be able to get ahead in this matter for that reason.

    • Benett Kessler November 12, 2013 at 9:21 am #

      The article to which you are referring is five years old, resurrected by a commenter. It is not relevant now. If you are unaware of how things work, maybe you should talk to Chief Watson for a better understanding. Our observations over the years are that Searles has a special talent that not just anyone with flash-bang non-lethal weapons can duplicate. The people of Mammoth Lakes have made it clear over the years that they value their wildlife and want management of the bears so humans and animals can co-exist. Searles has done this with assistance from MLPD. He has achieved results. Try hard to understand that the uncanny ability he has to communicate with bears can’t be addressed in a job description. Those of us who have witnessed before Steve and with Steve feel Mammoth is lucky to have him.

      Benett Kessler

    • Dan Watson November 12, 2013 at 11:43 am #

      Tryinghard brings up some good questions. “Wildlife Specialist” is not a certified position. It is the title granted to Steve in his capacity as bear management expert. He uses a variety of tools and strategies, and MLPD officers have the same resources at their disposal.

      Steve Searles is not available 24 hours a day. Officers respond to calls of bears in cars, houses, dumpsters, etc, and use similar tactics as Steve. When Steve is available, officers usually respond and work with Steve in dealing with the problem. The difference between what Steve does and officers do is that Steve works proactively. Officers respond to incidents. Steve tracks and monitors bear behavior. He is knowledgeable about the behavior of individual bears that live in town. He shares this knowledge with MLPD officers. Steve also spends a lot of time in the Lakes Basin educating visitors about the bears so that they can enjoy them in their natural setting while reducing the chances of an unfortunate bear encounter.

      There is a place for both Steve Searles and MLPD officers in managing our bear population.

      At one time, Steve Searles was an employee of the Police Department, but that ended years ago. He is currently a contractor for the Town of Mammoth Lakes. His contract is managed by the Police Department. As a contractor, there is no job description for the Wildlife Specialist, but a list of deliverables instead. I believes this works best for Steve and the Town. His contract is available to view at the Police Department if anyone so desires.

      In case of a problem with a bear, or other wildlife, Steve can be contacted at (760) 937-BEAR. Or the Police Department can be contacted during normal business hours at (760) 934-2011, or by dialing 911 in the case of an emergency.

  2. Ken Warner November 11, 2013 at 5:24 pm #

    Dan Watson: I didn’t bring it up. Sierra Wave published it. I had nothing to do with bringing this story to the web.

    Benett: Please clarify this misunderstanding. This sort of disconnect is very common on your blog and I don’t know why.

    • Benett Kessler November 11, 2013 at 5:53 pm #

      Ken, We published the story five years ago. Someone apparently searched it and commented on wanting to work with Steve Searles. Apparently, this brought the story to your attention. That’s all there is to this.
      Benett Kessler

  3. Sierra Wave Reader November 11, 2013 at 5:02 pm #

    @Dan Watson: It looks to me like Ben Bedi from the UK (not Ken Warner) made the first comment five years after publication, thus causing it to be “bumped” to the current list. To prevent misunderstandings like this in the future, it is important that these articles be “updated” with follow-up containing the latest facts, since it is probably a good behavior of the software to kick old articles to current status once someone comments on them.

    • Benett Kessler November 11, 2013 at 5:54 pm #

      We have published numerous updates to both the police issues and the bear issues.
      Benett Kessler

  4. Ken Warner November 11, 2013 at 10:25 am #

    Benett, this article confuses me. It seems like an old, out of date discussion. Dates included are years old.

    My personal experience is that — with all due respect to the MLPD — when the police were handling the bears, I had more bears in my back yard and even sometimes in my storage area than I have had since Steve Searles started working at bear control.

    It works now, my suggestion is keep doing it the same. I can’t speak to the issues the officers describe. But with my personal experience with Steve, I’ve not seen that kind of behavior. I have seen Steve tracking bears through the woods behind my house at all hours of the night. I’ve never seen the MLPD doing that.

    I think Steve is a valuable component of the fabric of Mammoth Lakes and I hope the MLPD and Steve and the T.C. can work this out for the benefit of the people of Mammoth Lakes.

    • Benett Kessler November 11, 2013 at 11:12 am #

      That is an old story. A commenter brought it up. It’s nothing new. Steve is the bear man. No questions about that.
      Benett Kessler

    • Dan Watson November 11, 2013 at 1:29 pm #

      I don’t know why Ken Warner brought up a 5 year old story. Much has changed since this story was posted. Steve Searles has been the contract Wildlife Specialist for the Town of Mammoth Lakes for several years now. He works hand-in-hand with the MLPD. He trains with the officers, and works alongside them on bear incidents. As the Wildlife Specialist, Steve actively monitors the bears’ behavior and spends a lot of time with public outreach and education. MLPD officers do not do the proactive work that Steve does, but they are all trained to use the same adversive techniques he uses. When Steve is not available, they respond to bear incidents and handle them the same way. When Steve is available, they often work alongside him.

      The problems that were present in 2008 are ancient history. A mutually good working relationship exists between the MLPD and Steve Searles.

      • realist November 11, 2013 at 8:11 pm #

        Yes, Mr. Searles has won the war so to speak in his quest for recognition and validity. But I have been watching him around Town doing his thing for almost two decades (a lot longer than you have been in town Chief). From my observations, it concerns me to think he is permitted to run around town with any sort of firearms – whether lethal or non-lethal. A large, but silent contingency in our community feels the same way (including the same concerns voiced by the MLPOA back in 2008) but are obviously afraid and unwilling to speak up. I suspect that most of your sworn officers feel the same way but obviously need to follow your lead. I understand the political dynamics regarding all issues related to Mr. Searles, but in listening to you during your short tenure in Town, I think a more independent perspective, immune from politics, from my Police Chief is warranted.

        • Benett Kessler November 11, 2013 at 9:10 pm #

          We too have watched Searles for more than 20 years and found the difference between now and before he worked the bears in Mammoth starkly different. Prior to Searles, we regularly covered stories about Fish and Game shooting bears because they didn’t know what else to do with them. I have never heard concerns about Searles and firearms. We have also found Chief Watson to be a straight forward man, but he can speak for himself if he wants.
          Benett Kessler

        • Dan Watson November 12, 2013 at 12:46 am #

          Apologies to Ken Warner. When I first saw this, Ben Bodi’s comments weren’t included and it started with Ken’s.

          In response to Realist’s comment, in my “short tenure” of nearly 3 1/2 years, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to observe Steve Searles and form my own opinion about his value to the community, regardless of the political dynamics. When I arrived in July, 2010, I’d heard all types of opinions about Steve. I was aware that he had critics of his program along with supporters. I’ve been around long enough to know that other people’s opinions are interesting, but I need to make my own observations before forming my own.

          I entered this position open minded and a bit skepitcal about Searles. Over time, I’ve become a believer in his program. The fact that we have fewer negative encounters with bears than other mountain communities, and there are bears that have lived in town for years and are not a problem because of conditioning, tells me something is working. Steve will be the first to admit that his program is not always successful and some bears just don’t respond. He will also admit that it takes an educated community to coexist with wildlife, and our residents do a very good job of discouraging bad bear behavior.

          Our bear management program is successful because of Steve’s community outreach and education, and the partnership that exists between the MLPD officers and Steve. He is authorized to carry both lethal and non-lethal firearms, and is trained by the MLPD firearms instructor and qualifies on the schedule as the police officers.

          It is no secret that Searles butt heads with the prior police chief. I suspect the members of the MLPOA were standing behind their chief at that time, as they should. Likewise, they are currently backing my support and direction regarding Searles. And I assure you, they are not afraid to voice their opinions, whether they agree with me or not. And I will stand by my previous comment that there currently exists a good working relationship between Steve Searles and the MLPD.

          A position like a Wildlife Specialist will always have supporters and critics. If you or any of the “large but silent contingency” have any concerns about Steve Searles, the Mammoth Lakes Bear Management Program, or the MLPOA, feel free to call me or stop by the station for a visit. I’d like to hear what you have to say.

        • Reality Check November 12, 2013 at 9:14 am #

          Soooo Realist, if the program has worked well for 20 years, which it has, what is you issue? Big bad scary guns? Searles has been using less lethal and lethal for 20 years with no problems. That is better than some police departments that I know of.

          Many modern cops had no experience with firearms in their life until they went to the police academy and received their 2 weeks of firearms training, Searles was a hunter for decades with more firearms experience than most cops.

      • Maxwell Smart November 11, 2013 at 9:05 pm #

        ” Sorry about that, Chief “

  5. Ben Bedi November 11, 2013 at 3:18 am #

    Dear Madam / Sir
    I live in the United-Kingdom, and I have seen and read many news on ML B Bears, I am interested to join a volunteer working with Mr Steve Searles.
    I have retired in UK happily, but loves bears. In last July August 2013, I spent more time in the Rokis CA.
    It will be at no cost to the communities.
    I am looking forward to hearing from you soon.
    +44 (0) 1142877790
    Kind regards
    Ben Bedi


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