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?