July 2009

When I give my bear walk, I have an entire stop dedicated to going through all the ways we have tried to keep food away from bears that they have figured out anyway. The stop gets longer every year. Bears figure out our new “bearproof” things all the time.

As far as I know, BearVaults are still reliable bear canisters in Yosemite. However, that may  not last for long, since we know Yosemite’s bears are smarter than those in New York!

The New York Times

Bear-Proof Can Is Pop-Top Picnic for a Crafty Thief

Published: July 24, 2009

NORTH ELBA, N.Y. — It was built to be impenetrable, from its “super rugged transparent polycarbonate housing” to its intricate double-tabbed lid that would keep campers’ food in and bears’ paws out.

The BearVault 500 withstood the ravages of the test bears at the Folsom City Zoo in California. It has stymied mighty grizzlies weighing up to 1,000 pounds in the backcountry of Yellowstone National Park.

But in one corner of the Adirondacks, campers started to notice that the BearVault, a popular canister designed to keep food and other necessities safe, was being compromised. First through circumstantial evidence, then from witness reports, it became clear that in most cases, the conqueror was a relatively tiny, extremely shy middle-aged black bear named Yellow-Yellow.

Read the rest of the article…

I saw a bear late yesterday. It was a beautiful 150-pound (or so) bear just finishing up his molt (so, he was mostly dark with some light patches). We’ve never caught the bear before; he’s untagged. It’s always nice to see an untagged bear in Yosemite Valley.

That said, it’s always scary to see an untagged bear in Yosemite Valley (particularly in eastern Yosemite Valley). Such bears generally haven’t been spending much time around people, but many new bears that spend time in Yosemite Valley begin to spend some time around people and begin losing their natural fear of us. These are the bears we start off not seeing in the campgrounds, but which, if they do get used to people,  that we begin seeing in the campgrounds. It usually happens quickly. One day, a bear is oblivious to human food, the next day he finds human food, and that’s day the bear’s behavior changes dramatically. They’re never the same after their first positive experience with human food.

I saw this bear in Curry Orchard, an apple orchard that was planted in the 1860s (I think 1864). It’s of great historical value because of its age and it’s of great interest to bears because of its apples.

Yet, people always want to see a bear and bears are less scary when they’re in trees. And people generally will get as close to wildlife as they comfortably can. The danger of people being so close to a bear in a tree isn’t so much to the people, but to the bear. The apple orchards provide a natural (although non-native) food to bears at a difficult time of year, but it’s also the place that bears get used to people being very close to them. So, bears learn that people aren’t so scary after all, making it that much easier, once they’re done eating apples, to wander into the nearby campgrounds in search of dessert.

We tell people this all the time. But so many of these people don’t care.

And, so this new bear is now habituated to people.

One night 10 years ago, I was working in Upper Pines Campground with my partner for the night when we caught up to a bear and we, along with two wildlife techs, chased him out of the campground. At one point, he turned around and did a two-step bluff charge toward all four of us. I remember thinking that this bear wouldn’t live long if he kept behaving this aggressively. (He was also typically in the campgrounds just after dark, entering campsites with people active in them and grabbing food.) This was Yellow 28.

The next year, we expanded our repertoire of bear-scaring techniques to include a shotgun from which we could shoot rubber slugs, bean bags, and rubber buckshot. This has had a wide range of effects on different bears’ behavior, from bears completely changing their behavior and nearly always avoiding people and developed areas to having almost no effect at all. Yellow 28 was nearer the good end of that spectrum. After a few experiences with the shotgun, he was incredibly easy to chase away and he began his campground exploits after midnight instead of 8 or 9 pm. His focus became on checking for unlatched lockers (as mentioned in a previous post) and eating lots of food from those he found that were unlatched.

At some point, he lost his tags, but a bear matching his description and behavior continued to visit Yosemite Valley’s campgrounds from time to time. And, this bear has gotten very large. We haven’t trapped him in probably a half-dozen years, but his last weight was 342 pounds and he looks considerably larger these days (probably more than 400 pounds, which is very large for a Yosemite bear).

These days, the bear we strongly suspect to be Yellow 28 (if he is, indeed, Yellow 28) is 23 years old, which is very old for a wild bear in a non-hunted population. Indeed, when we see him, as I have a few times in the past week, we can tell how old and arthritic he is… we have to slow down when chasing him away or we’ll catch up to him. I’m not exaggerating. I’ve literally walked behind him yelling instead of running after him; he can’t go any faster. (Granted, I am a fast walker, but still.) He doesn’t go any faster when hit with a bean bag from the shotgun, either, as I saw last year.

In case you’re wondering what happens if we don’t slow down but keep on trying to chase him faster, I’ll tell you. A few years ago in Housekeeping Camp, I was chasing him and was realizing I was catching up and getting closer than I usually do when he stopped, turned around, and bluff charged me quite closely. Luckily, this has happened to me several times over the years and I was able to stand my ground and keep on yelling (for the first time ever for such a close bluff charge).

In any case, it’s rare when we can think of a specific bear that we saved through good human-bear management practices, and Yellow 28, if he is this Big Slow Bear, is one of them. Ten years and counting…

A few days ago, I helped release a bear we’d caught in a culvert trap. We trapped this bear because he’s been quite busy in developed areas of Yosemite Valley and we wanted to get a radio collar on him so we could keep better tabs on him (and scare him from these developed areas more often).

The bear was a bit slow to recover from the drugs that we used to anesthetize him. So, before we released him, we looked into the trap a few times and poked him with a stick to judge if he was alert enough to be released. He was, but he was also remarkably calm. (I’m always amazed at how some bears are so incredibly calm when they’re in traps… even when it’s their first experience ever being trapped.)

In any case, one of the times I looked into the trap, his face was against the holes, and I found my nose just a few inches from his nose. This 302-pound bear took a few sniffs and ignored me.

It was very cool.

Of course, I have a particular bias toward Yosemite, but California is full of amazing places, and many of these amazing places are very close to Yosemite.

I was lucky while in college to take several geology, geography, and biology field trips to the Owens Valley/Mono Basin/eastern Sierra, east of Yosemite. (OK, I didn’t so much enjoy the geology field trips–those were hard work… I almost changed my  major from geology because of those trips!) But, since then, I’ve only spent a little sporadic bits of time on the east side. But, I took four days off in a row over July 4th weekend and spent some time wandering the area.

Here are some highlights:

Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest

Because I worked in the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias for a few summers, I might be a little biased toward sequoias, but while they can get a few thousand years old (and really big), the bristlecone pines can live up to around 5,000 years old. There are living bristlecones that were alive probably around 3,000 BC! The ironic thing about these trees is that the oldest trees are the ones that live in the harshest environments. Plant a bristlecone pine in a nice mild place and it won’t live anywhere near 5,000 years. Plant it on a harsh, frigid, windy mountainside at 10,000 feet and it might well live for thousands of years. Perhaps we can learn a lesson about life from these trees. (“According to the difficulty is the reward.” -Talmud)

Since I hadn’t visited these trees in about 15 years, I’d forgotten about the view from around the grove. The views of the Sierra are amazing! I think I actually enjoyed the view more than I enjoyed the trees.

Sierra crest from near the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest

Sierra crest from near the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest

Bristlecone Pine and the Sierra

Bristlecone Pine and the Sierra

Bristlecone Pines and the Sierra

Bristlecone Pines and the Sierra

Mono Lake

Perhaps the most famous attraction on the east side is Mono Lake. It’s a great place for birding, for relaxing, for photographing, for canoeing/kayaking, and for seeing sunset.

Mono Lake, tufa, and the Sierra at sunset

Mono Lake, tufa, and the Sierra at sunset

While both Mono Lake and the Bristlecone Pine Forest could easily be national monuments–they’re both nationally significant for both scenic and scientific reasons–the fact that they’re not means they’re not quite as visited.

Moving on to the cultural realm…

Bodie State Historic Park

Bodie is a ghost town unlike most–what you see is what actually existed at the time of the town’s demise. California State Parks maintains the buildings (and the buildings’ interiors) in a state of arrested decay. What you see is how it was left, not how someone wants you to see it. What’s left is less than 10 percent of the mining town that once had around 10,000 residents.

Church and other buildings at Bodie

Church and other buildings at Bodie

Note: Bodie and a portion of Mono Lake are state parks threatened with closure by California’s budget woes. (Learn more…)

These are just a few of many, many wonderful places in the eastern Sierra. Get a map. Take a drive (and a hike).