June 2009

Last Friday, I hiked the Pohono Trail, which begins at Glacier Point and ends at Tunnel View. I see that I called the Panorama Trail under-appreciated in a previous post. Well, the Pohono Trail is even more under-appreciated. While a fair number of people have heard of the Panorama Trail, it seems very few people have ever heard of the Pohono Trail. Indeed, I frequently get questions about the Panorama Trail, but only rarely get them about the Pohono Trail.

What’s so nice about this trail? Well, it has great views of Yosemite Valley from a variety of progressively different viewpoints. Each viewpoint provides a view that is pretty similar to the previous one, but the small amount of change from viewpoint to viewpoint adds up fast. The view from Glacier Point is very different than the view from Tunnel View. If you like 360° panoramas, this trail has it. If you like those edge-of-the-cliff experiences, this trail has lots of those. To top it off… hardly anyone hikes on most of this trail.

Yosemite Falls from Sentinel Dome

Yosemite Falls from Sentinel Dome

Half Dome, Clark Range, much more, from Sentinel Dome

Half Dome, Nevada Fall, much more, from Sentinel Dome (which provides a 360° panorama).

Mount Starr King and the Clark Range from Sentinel Dome.

Mount Starr King and the Clark Range from Sentinel Dome.

Cathedral Rocks and El Capitan from Taft Point (one of my favorite places in Yosemite).

Cathedral Rocks and El Capitan from Taft Point (one of my favorite places in Yosemite).

Yosemite Falls and Eagle Peak from Taft Point

Yosemite Falls and Eagle Peak from Taft Point

View east from Dewey Point

View east from Dewey Point (and Katrin, one of our hiking party)

Crocker Point

Crocker Point

Closeup of Bridalveil Fall from Crocker Point (this is the first view of Bridalveil Fall, despite being closer to it at Dewey Point, it's not visible)

Closeup of Bridalveil Fall from Crocker Point (this is the first view of Bridalveil Fall, despite being closer to it at Dewey Point, where it's not visible)

And, Stanford Point

And, Stanford Point

I didn’t take pictures from Glacier Point or Tunnel View (or any of the Inspiration Points), but you’ve seen those before, probably.

As far as 14-mile hikes go, this one is relatively moderate. (Half Dome is the same distance, but dramatically harder.)

Several species of animals seem to exhibit forms of culture. Here’s a fascinating article about this:

Hidden Whale Culture Could Be Critical to Species Survival

By Brandon Keim | June 24, 2009 | Wired.com

Though it sounds at first like a marine biologist’s take on political correctness, respecting the cultural diversity of whales may be essential to saving them.

Scientists are accustomed to thinking of whale populations in terms of genetic diversity. But even when they share the same genes, groups of whales can live in very different ways, raising the possibility that species might be saved even while individual cultures vanish. The tragedy of cultural extinction aside, cultural diversity may sustain the long-term health of Earth’s cetaceans.

Read the rest of the article…

To answer this question with a question: what is the problem?

The problem is that bears and people coexist in Yosemite, but not quite as well as we should. Some bears–truly a small minority of them–learn that eating human food is a much more efficient way of getting calories than eating their natural foods, so they consistently seek out human food. In the process, they become more and more comfortable being around people, to the point that–in a small minority of cases–they become too dangerous. The bears that cause us to lie awake at night wondering what awful thing is going to happen that night are the ones we end up killing because we’ve exhausted all other options. Our fear of a bear doing something awful causes us to do something awful. It’s a terrible dilemma. And we hate it more than anything.

Whenever this happens (as it has twice this year already), it’s typical for one or two of the newer employees I work with to sit down in my office and start asking a lot of questions. They all begin with “why.”

In all our efforts, particularly over the past decade, but really over the past 35 years, we think we have tried everything practical to either improve food storage and discourage bears from getting habituated to people. A lot of the questions involve asking why we don’t try something else, but, the suggestions are always things we’ve already tried in some way.

We are asked “why not condition bears to think human food is bad?” Been there, done that. In Yosemite in the 1970s, when people commonly hung food from trees and bears got it anyway, researchers hung food laced with an emetic in a tree. Bears would climb the tree, eat the food, throw up, and leave. When the bear was next observed in the area, it would recognize the tree, run past it, and then continue on its way (probably to some other tree that had food in it). Likewise, more recently in Sequoia National Park, a similar tactic was tried in cars. The same outcome resulted. Bears are too curious to generalize from bad food in one tree or car to food in all trees and cars.

We are asked, “why not put up more signs?” Yosemite is full of signs, including many about bears and food storage. The fact is, as research has borne out–in Yosemite and elsewhere–is that signs have a minimal effect on people’s behavior. There are three battles, really, with signs. The first is to have people notice them, then for people to stop and read (or at least glance) at them, then learn from what they read and alter their behavior accordingly. Doing one of these things is difficult, but to be successful, we have to succeed at all three of these things, which is extremely difficult.

We are asked, “why not cite more people when they leave food out?” This is a difficult question and perhaps a topic for another post. The reality is that Yosemite cites far more people for food storage than it used to (probably about 10 times more people than it did about a decade ago). While the citations make us feel better (usually), it’s not entirely clear to me that it has actually helped that much. I think for citations to succeed in a very noticeable way, we would have to increase the number of citations for food storage another ten-fold. That’s asking a lot for an unclear return on all the work this involves. And… it’s a topic for another post.

We are asked about various ways to prevent bears from becoming habituated to people. People ask about fencing the campgrounds, putting on shock collars, moving bears, and so on. All these things aren’t currently practical and probably wouldn’t work very well anyway. The best thing we’ve done (aside from improving food storage) in recent years to reduce bears’ comfort levels around people is our more aggressive tactics of shooting at bears in developed areas with rubber slugs and bean bags from shotguns, clear paintballs from paintball guns, and noisemakers from starter pistols.This has certainly helped, but I think in many (but not all) cases, it merely prolongs the inevitable (which is, indeed, an improvement, but not as much of an improvement as we need).

So, back to the question. What is the solution?

For a long time, biologists believed that animals didn’t have emotions; that they weren’t really conscious. Work in recent years has shown this isn’t quite the case. (Marc Bekoff has written some good books on this topic, such as Minding Animals.)

The New York Times recently had an article about some such research, and it’s rather interesting. It reminds me that animals are a lot more like us than we might care to admit… which also means we’re a lot more like them than we might care to admit.

In That Tucked Tail, Real Pangs of Regret?

Published: June 1, 2009

If you own a dog, especially a dog that has anointed your favorite rug, you know that an animal is capable of apologizing. He can whimper and slouch and tuck his tail and look positively mortified — “I don’t know what possessed me.” But is he really feeling sorry?

[read the rest of the story]