May 2009

From bears to food… I suppose it’s not big of a leap, is it?

Tonight, I had a portobello mushroom burger. I figured I’d share my makeshift recipe. (Credit goes to my friend/coworker Lauren for inspiration.)

I think I more-or-less made this up on my own, but I wouldn’t be shocked to find out that I copied this from somewhere or if someone else does the same thing.

I use a barbecue to grill two large portobello mushrooms, a few slices of red bell pepper, and a halved tomato (putting the halves on top of foil make it a bit easier to manage)… I brush all of these with olive oil on both sides (this not only prevents sticking but helps with juicyness). I also chop up some red onion and put it in a foil packet with more olive oil. I grill all this for about ten minutes per side on a medium flame.

For a bun, I usually use two whole-wheat buns and add some swiss cheese (easiest to broil this in a toaster oven for about 10 minutes). I usually put the portobello first, squish the tomato half over the portobello, then add the red pepper and chopped onions.

That’s it! Really good.

One of my coworkers took a bear observation report today from some rock climbers. They were climbing the second pitch of Yosemite Valley’s popular Bishop’s Terrace, which is a two-pitch rock climb, when they looked up and saw a bear. This climb is one difficult enough that it would be difficult for novice rock climbers, and most would use ropes and other forms of protection (an unroped fall would probably cause serious injury or death).

This isn’t the first report of rock climbing bears, but it’s still surprising.

I’ve always had a hard time focusing on trash left out (vs. plain old food)… I’m not sure why, but I suppose it’s because a bag of food has way more calories (usally) than a bag of trash. And, when trying to keep bears from human food, the focus is on calories, because that’s what the bears are focused on.

Let me tell a story…

There was once a bear in Yosemite who was tagged Orange 19. She spent most of her time in Little Yosemite Valley, but occasionally made forays into Yosemite Valley. The first, and only, time I saw her was during one of these forays, when she bluff charged me (up close) so many times over the course of a few minutes that I lost count. (I wasn’t even doing anything to provoke her… this is just how she was.) Shortly after, I caught up with her again (with a few other rangers) and we spotted her with her cubs (who she previously had stashed in a tree outside the campground) and we scared them away.

That was the first time I saw a bear that was latter tagged Yellow 53.

The next year, I was working one night when we received a report of a bear (who turned out to be Yellow 53, a yearling on his own at that point) near Lower Pines Campground. Since he was out of the campground, we didn’t bother him, and he soon disappeared. Expecting that he might come into the campground once it got dark, we talked to everyone to make sure they stored their food. Meanwhile, Yellow 53 ambled over a nearby bridge and left the area. He’d had his chance to get into Lower Pines, but he walked all the way around the campground and over a bridge to go somewhere else. This is what bears are supposed to do, and I actually remember feeling proud of him! Maybe he’d be unlike his mother! On another night shortly after, I was working once again, and I ran into my partner as he told a woman not to forget the bag of trash she still had hanging out.

Hours later, as I was walking through Upper Pines Campground, checking on food storage, I found Yellow 53 eating from the trash bag that this woman my partner had reminded had never put away. The bear treed, and when he finally came down, I chased him away. To the best of my knowledge, this was the first time Yellow 53 got human food on his own, and all because this woman, despite the reminder, still managed to forget to throw away her trash.

And thus a downward spiral began. He was active that year, less so the next, and then very active the following two years. He knew by then that getting human food was far more efficient than eating only natural foods, despite the occasionally annoying person who actually tried to scare him away. He could sneak into campsites with people just a few feet away and grab their food. As time went on, he was so comfortable doing this that visitors had a hard time scaring him away (although, I always found him easy to scare away).

He was a smart bear, like his mother. Orange 19 once banged a bear canister against a rock for 45 minutes until the lid popped off. Yellow 53, on the other hand, went around opening up unlocked car doors… using the door handles.

Yellow 53, sedated, during a capture operation.

A sedated Yellow 53 being taken out of a trap during a capture operation.

I (and many others) spent quite a lot of time trying to undo the consequences of that woman forgetting to throw away her trash. I even got an award for it, but all Yellow 53 got was more and more food. He got so close to people so often, and may have injured one (or more) people, that we were beginning to think we’d have no choice but to kill him. We tried moving him, we tried aggressively using a shotgun with rubber slugs or bean bags to scare him, we tried to improve food storage. But, in the end, none of these things made a difference, and we had to kill him. It was a very sad day. He was perhaps my favorite bear.

So, a few nights ago, I was walking through Upper Pines when the wildlife techs, just a loop away, found a sow with three cubs in the campground. And what were they doing? Eating from a trash  bag someone had forgotten to throw away.

I spent a few hours in Housekeeping Camp tonight, checking on food storage after 11 pm. I found a pretty average number of violations (which is more than we’d find in the campgrounds, but that’s another story). One of these violations was bad enough (ice chest full of food left out) that I called a protection ranger and got the owner cited. While he deserved the citation, I always (well, almost always) feel a little bad about it. But, after a decade of intensive educational efforts, you’d think more people would be more careful with their food. (Stat: most people who have a bear incident–a case in which a bear causes damage or obtains food–are repeat visitors to Yosemite.)

The entertaining part of the night happened when I woke up someone for an ice chest with some drinks in it. As is often the case, the person said that the ice chest was empty. This was obviously not true. It turn out he had an empty ice chest out, which he knew about, and a not-empty ice chest out that “wasn’t his.” (Whose was it and what was it doing in his unit?) He came out to take care of that and then I noticed a can of bear spray hanging from a post.

Many people don’t realize that bear (pepper) spray is included in the very broad definition of a weapon in national parks, and is therefore prohibited (except in those parks–mostly those with grizzlies–where an exception is made). So, as is usually the case when we see that, I just pointed out that pepper spray wasn’t legal and he should put it away. He denied that it was pepper spray and stated that it was a horn (which is quite similar in appearance). I double-checked that it was pepper spray, and, surprised, he put it away.

I’m really curious. Had there been a bear nearby and he tried to scare it away with his pepper spray/horn… what would have happened?

These are the things that keep our sometimes-bored minds entertained at night.

Yesterday, I hiked the Panorama Trail from Glacier Point. This under-appreciated trail travels nearly eight miles from Glacier Point to Yosemite Valley, with views of four waterfalls (passing three of them) and panoramas of eastern Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, and Yosemite’s high country. While I have to say the Four Mile Trail from Glacier Point to Yosemite Valley is quite a nice hike, Panorama Trail is better (yet less popular).

Vernal and Nevada Falls from Glacier Point

Vernal and Nevada Falls from Glacier Point

Yosemite Falls from Glacier Point

Yosemite Falls from Glacier Point

Of course, May is the best time to do this hike because the waterfalls are typically at their highest flows of the  year. Although, having visited Illilouette Fall during spring, summer, and winter, I have to say this waterfall looks great no matter the season, unlike most of Yosemite’s other waterfalls.

Illilouette Fall

Illilouette Fall

P5160089smIllilouette Fall joins the Merced River in Yosemite Valley as the river’s largest tributary and is the only tributary waterfall, other than Bridalveil, that actually flows all year. Unfortunately, the view of Illilouette Fall is a bit uncomfortable and not very good (this view can only be seen from a few square feet, and trying to get a little better view can lead you right over the edge).

The trail climbs up from Illilouette Fall, finally reaching the top of Nevada Fall. The overlook of the waterfall is mightily impressive when the river is high. Of course, the Mist Trail continues down the steep, misty steps below Vernal Fall.

Nevada Fall

Nevada Fall

Vernal Fall from Lady Franklin Rock

Vernal Fall from Lady Franklin Rock

I’ve sat at Lady Franklin Rock for hours, staring at Vernal Fall. There are times I think it’s my favorite. But, then Illilouette has a special place in my heart. And I can’t forget Yosemite Falls, which I see most often; this one may be my favorite. Who cares which is my favorite? They’re all awesome.

Tonight, I was walking around Lower Pines Campground when some visitors pointed out a bear that had just walked past their campsite. I caught up to the bear, chased it for a few seconds, and then lost sight of it in the middle of the campground and couldn’t find it again. Bears are sneaky. Very sneaky.

I went back to the campsite to talk to the visitors who’d just seen the bear. They related that they had seen a bear a few hours earlier. The campground host had just talked to them about bears and how it’s important to always keep food within arm’s reach because a bear can enter a campsite any time. The visitor turned and walked to his picnic table (with food beyond arm’s reach) and as he arrived at the table, a bear put his paws up on the other side of the table to grab the food. The visitor was startled, but the bear was well practiced: the bear grabbed the food and moved on, without seeming to mind being just a few feet from a person. The bear then continued on to the next campsite and got more food. By then, the campground host realized what was happening and scared the bear away.

It’s common for campers to not take us seriously when we say that a bear can enter a campsite at any time, even while people are around. Though it’s not the best scenario, I have to say that there’s a certain satisfaction to having a bear walk into a campsite while I’m telling disbelieving campers this, or when that happens just a few seconds after I leave. I guess it’s the “I told you so” effect.

While listening to tonight’s campers, still somewhat in disbelief about how a bear would walk into a campsite with people active in it and a campfire going, I was wishing I had a video camera so I could play this back to the nonbelievers.

Though, I have to say, even more frustrating than the nonbelievers are those like the campers I talked to a few nights ago. The conversation went something like this:

Me: “So, make sure your food locker is always closed and any food you have out is always right in front of you, within arm’s reach.”

Campers with ice chests out and locker open, 15 feet away: “Oh yeah, we’ll take care of it.”

Me: “So, if you could close up the locker and put that food [that you’re not using] away now… a bear could enter your campsite even while you’re here and start eating your food!”

Campers: “Yeah, that’s happened to us before.”

Sadly, this is not an infrequent occurrence.

I thought people were supposed to learn from their experiences. The bears sure do. Some people sure don’t. What’s that say?

We caught a bear in a trap last night and we “worked up” the bear. Basically, the wildlife tech drugged the bear in the trap, then we took out the bear, weighed her (130 lbs), and gave a physical exam. I was responsible for taking some of the vitals, which we do regularly (the bear is under anesthesia–it’s important to keep track of these things, just as it is with anesthetized people). Holding a bear’s head or feeling her heartbeat is unique (I’m not sure how to describe what it’s like to stick a thermometer up a bear’s butt).

Here's a picture of a bear trap. I've just opened the door, and a bear is about to go running out.

Here's a picture of a bear trap. I've just opened the door, and a bear is about to go running out.

Bears and traps are fascinating to me. Why do bears go back into traps after having been in them before? Surely, they remember. There’s one bear who has been trapped over 15 times! There are other bears who never seem to go into traps. I wonder what the thought process is. In the last post, I wrote about a bear who outsmarted traps.  But, perhaps the most fascinating thing about bears in traps is how calm some bears are once they’re inside. While some bears (like this bear from last night) are fairly anxious once in a trap, there are other bears who appear completely calm–and I’ve noticed this even with some bears who have never been trapped before. What makes them so calm? Would YOU be calm if you were stuck in a trap and didn’t know why or what was going to happen or how to get out?

White 6, the bear we caught last night, was apparently so surprised to get caught in the trap that she didn’t even bother eating the bait. What does go through a bear’s mind when that door closes behind it? Is it, “oops”?

As for this bear, she was moved elsewhere within Yosemite. She hasn’t been acting aggressively or anything, but she is quite used to being around people and getting our food; her best chance for a long life is one away from Yosemite Valley. While we don’t relocate bears as often as we used to, we’re most likely to relocate young bears, which are less likely to return to wherever they were captured. (It seems older bears almost always return, so it’s not very productive trying to move them.)

White 6 just after being taken from the trap.

White 6 just after being taken from the trap.

(Not all my posts will be about bears… that just seems to be the only thing interesting to write about lately.)

So, here’s my last post on this topic… for now (there will never be a last post on this topic).

  • Yosemite has gone through its fair share of food lockers. One of the first years I worked here, I read about new food lockers at White Wolf. A week or so later, I heard about how the bears had figured them out already. This is a long and continuing tradition in Yosemite. The other long and continuing tradition in Yosemite is people not figuring how to properly latch the lockers (this is actually the bigger problem). Some locker designs were so complicated (to keep bears out) that people couldn’t figure out how to get the latch(es) closed properly, resulting in the bears successfully playing with the latch(es) and getting lots of food. This continues to be one of the most common food storage problems we see in campgrounds. The latest locker design we use is really simple and we surely see these left open a lot less often than some of the older ones, but they’re expensive to replace.
  • Traps. OK, so, we aren’t trying to keep bears out of traps, but the presumption is that they’re “bearproof” once the bear is inside. Not so. White 60 (previously known as Blue 6 and Blue 10) seems to have figured this out. A trap was set at The Ahwahnee several nights and the wildlife crew found, several times, that the trap was closed, the bait bag was gone, but the bear wasn’t inside. One night, they saw White 60 in the parking lot and chased him away (as is the usual practice, to keep bears wary of people). They chased him up into the rocks, presumably along the bear’s typical route, and started finding their bait bags. No one ever saw it happen, but the speculation is that this fairly large bear was able to snag the bait bag while keeping his feet out the back of the trap, preventing the door from closing. He’s been trapped since, so either he forgot this trick or our bait bag technique is different (which, come to think of it, I think it is).
  • This is one of my favorite stories about one of my favorite bears, Yellow 53 (aka Yellow 54, Yellow 44). A few summers ago, we all started noticing an increasing number of cars with doors open in the campgrounds late at night. At first, it seemed like the usual randomness that happens at night–someone gets up to get something from their car but is too tired to remember to close the door. But, when we started seeing multiple cars near each other with multiple doors open, we started getting suspicious. Another ranger was driving through the campground one night and saw Yellow 53 walk up to a car and open up the (unlocked) door using the door handle. Most of these cars didn’t seem to have food in them, so I think this was becoming a part of his normal foraging activity since it was so easy to do. It’s a really good indication of bears’ curiosity. As to how he figured this out, I think it was a combination of his familiarity with the concept of a latch (see 1st bullet) and him having spent a lot of time at the edge of campgrounds, watching people.

So, that’s all for now. I’ll probably have another story soon…

My last post got me thinking about other “bearproof” things bears have gotten into. Here are a few examples:

  • Bear canisters (we actually call these bear resistant). Many (if not most) brand new canisters that have been tested mechanically and with zoo bears end up failing when wild bears get their paws on them. Usually, these problems are easily remedied with minor modifications, but it’s still intriguing. The venerable Garcia canister, which has been around for close to 20 years, has had surprisingly few failures. But, it just doesn’t hold up to a bear banging it against a rock for 45 minutes (Orange 19 provided us with that information). Another bear, coincidentally tagged Orange 91, rolled several of a group’s canisters into Illilouette Creek.
  • Looking into a "bearproof" dumpster

    Looking into a "bearproof" dumpster with a bear inside

    Dumpsters. The iconic “bearproof” dumpsters scattered all around Yosemite, with the distinctive “half dome” top, worked great for many years… until, in the 1990s (or late 1980s?), wildlife techs began looking inside and finding bears trapped. It turns out that empty dumpsters are hard to get out of (full dumpsters are easy to get out of: less reaching required). Bears have been trapped in them without anyone finding them, resulting in a bear dying over the winter and another who ended up wandering around the Mariposa County landfill. A few bears have (spectacularly) escaped from trash trucks after being dumped into them. In any case, now dumpsters have clips (but not everyone bothers to use them).

  • Trash cans. The half dome trash cans are also all over Yosemite (although a bit less so now than in the past). When they’re too full, bears can get into them. They can also (when not installed correctly) knock the cans out from the “bearproof” part, or, when not closed correctly, can flip up the “bearproof” part.

That’s only half my list… I’ll save the rest for later.

Black bears in Yosemite have a penchant for breaking into cars while in search of food. Prior to 1999, when we found a car containing food and couldn’t locate the owners, there wasn’t much we could do except come back a few hours later and take a bear incident report after a bear visited the car.

So, in 1999 (I think that’s when it was), the park constructed a bearproof vehicle impound lot. Now, when we find a car containing food after dark and we can’t locate the owner, we can tow the car and put it in the bearproof impound lot. The car is safe, the bear is safe from getting human food and breakin-related injuries, and the owner, while initially annoyed, has probably been saved from hundreds of dollars in repairs (minus the tow bill + citation).

Over the winter, we found that a car inside the impound lot had been broken into by a bear… after the car was impounded. We found bear hair on the barbed wire atop the chain-link fence (12 feet high, I think it is). There was also a small section of the impound lot that was bounded by two wooden fences, which the bear had broken through. (The bear seems to have entered one way and exited the other.) So, the wooden fence problem was easy to fix: add chain-link fencing along the wooden fence.

The other day, a ranger noticed a bear atop the chain-link fence. Once, we could say it was a fluke, but twice? So, our task for this week will be to try to re-bearproof the impound lot. My thought is to add wood planks or something along the outside of the fence, so that the bear (theoretically) can’t climb the fence. We’ll see…

Really, the word “bearproof” shouldn’t exist, because bears seem to figure out how to get into practically everything, even after it’s been “bearproof” for a decade!