Bear safety tips from ‘Bear Whisperer’ Steve Searles

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With spring in full swing, hikers, campers and other outdoor enthusiasts are likely getting out and heading to local mountains and the Sierra Nevada. Also venturing out are black bears, which at this time of year begin to emerge from their dens for longer periods of time after their winter hibernation, meaning two things -- they’re hungry, and many of the sows are with cubs.

With that in mind, Mammoth Lakes wildlife specialist Steve Searles, better known as the “Bear Whisperer,” shares the following Q & A safety tips for those visiting and living in bear country:


Question: What should a person do if they see a bear on the trail?
Answer: Don’t approach the animal, but don’t run away, either. Enjoy the experience. If you don’t have any food out, admire the animal from afar with binoculars or the zoom feature on a digital camera.

Q: And if the bear is close?
A: Make yourself look bigger by holding your hands above your head, bang pots together and yell at the animal. If everyone did that I wouldn’t have a job. Bears are the best at reading body language and vocalization.

Q: What if there are children present?
A: A lot of the information out there says grab your kids and put them up on your shoulder. But this automatically sets an element of fear in the bear. Instead, keep young ones by your side.

Q: What about dogs?
A: All dogs bark at bears. And all bears run from dogs. If I had a penny for every poodle or Chihuahua that chased a bear I’d be rich. Bears are vegetarians -- they don’t make a living on dogs and cats.

Q: Are black bears fairly nonconfrontational?
A: They’re predominantly gentle creatures that are genetically programmed to run from humans. People are 350 times more likely to be struck directly on the head by a bolt of lightning than to be attacked by a black bear. It’s more dangerous to be walking down a city street than to experience an encounter with one of these animals. In the rare situation when a bear has gone after a human, it’s the equivalent of the Jeffrey Dahmer of the bear world.

Q: If a person returns to their cabin and finds a bear in it, what should they do?
A: Always give the animal plenty of room to escape. Never allow it to feel trapped. If it’s in your vacation home, open doors and windows so that it has a way out.

Q: What are the chances of seeing a bear while in the Sierras?
A: If you leave food out, pretty good. California is now home to approximately 30,000 black bears, making the state’s 28,000 square miles of mountainous habitat quite crowded. Every square mile is now filled, which makes it difficult to relocate bears.

Q: What’s the best way to prevent bears from coming close?
A: Don’t leave food out. That includes bird food, it’s like meth for bears. People don’t always understand that feeding a bear is essentially like giving it a death sentence, since it trains the bears to eat human food and it will likely need to be killed as a result.