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.