September 2009


I’ve worked with Shelton my entire time working in Yosemite Valley (over 10 years now). He’s a really good interpreter… really good. Other interpreters who go on his programs usually feel pretty inadequate afterwards. (You’ll have a chance to see for yourself if you watch Ken Burns’ The National Parks: America’s Best Idea coming up on Sunday.)

For years now, Shelton has been trying to get the story out about African-American cavalrymen (often referred to as buffalo soldiers) who protected Yosemite in its early years as a national park. (Before the National Park Service was created, the cavalry was sent in to the early national parks to protect them.) As Shelton frequently says, African-Americans are underrepresented as visitors to national parks and he hopes that knowledge that buffalo soldiers were important in Yosemite’s history will interest more African-Americans in a visit to national parks.

Ranger Shelton Johnson meets President Barack Obama

Ranger Shelton Johnson meets President Barack Obama (White House photo)

Well, getting interviewed for this Ken Burns documentary will probably help his cause a bit. Writing a novel about a buffalo soldier (Gloryland) might help. Meeting the president sure can’t hurt!

Lots of people visit Yosemite and are surprised at the lack of wildlife they find here. Some national parks, like Yellowstone, have many more wildlife viewing opportunities than Yosemite.

In Yosemite, people often notice squirrels and birds. Less often, they notice deer or coyotes, and much less often, they see a bear. So, we say Yosemite isn’t a wildlife park in the way that a park like Yellowstone is.

But, we lie.

California spotted owl in Yosemite West

California spotted owl in Yosemite West

The other night, while driving home, I saw something odd atop a roadside snow pole (the poles that mark the edge of the road for snowplows). After a moment for my eyes to adjust to the dark, I realized I was seeing an owl–a California spotted owl. Yosemite is home to eight different species of owls… but only one kind of deer, one kind of coyote, one kind of bear. And we say Yosemite isn’t a wildlife park!

Indeed, Yosemite hosts at least 165 different species of birds! Plus another 90 that have only been seen a few times.  There are probably fewer than 80 different species of mammals in Yosemite (what most people think of when they think of wildlife). Seventeen of these mammal species are bats (apparently the diversity is in the sky).

So, Yosemite is a wildlife park–but you have to look up to see most of the animals.

Yosemite’s website has more information about birding. It’s a relaxing thing to do (and something you can do wherever you live, although doing it in Yosemite has its perks!)

The first year I worked year-round in Yosemite (1999), I was amazed by the number of bears hit by cars just in just in October (was it seven?) That’s the year I made my first “speeding kills bears” sign for the entrance stations to put up in their windows. I figured that while everyone recognizes the more obvious dangers of speeding (injuring themselves or another person), they needed a new or different reason to make them slow down in Yosemite.

Several years later, the park’s Bear Council got re-interested in the idea, and this is how the “Speeding Kills Bears” (or, “red-bear, dead-bear”) signs started showing up a few years ago.

Ever since then, the reported number of bears hit by cars has increased! I can think of only two explanations for this. One is that there are people out there that take perverse pleasure in hitting bears. While, I recognize this is possible, I think the more likely option is that more people report having hit a bear (even if it’s a minor hit) because they now perceive that the park wants to know (because of the ubiquitous signs). So, assuming that the increased reports of bear vs. car incidents doesn’t reflect an actual increase, it’s hard to know if these signs are effective or not.

bear.sign.car-webIn case you haven’t heard of these signs, they’re placed at or near a location where a bear has been hit by a car in that year. (Sometimes, early in the year, these are at places from the previous year or where bears are frequently seen on or near the road.) In the last several years, there are 10 to 20 reports of bears being hit by cars in Yosemite, although the number the last year or two is more like 20 (it’s more than 20 this year). The purpose of the signs is to remind people that Yosemite is a wildlife preserve and exists (in part) to preserve wildlife, but speeding is a good way to kill wildlife (not just bears… but dozens if not hundreds of deer per year, and numerous other animals).

Anyway, getting to the picture above. This bear in a Crane Flat meadow was orphaned in 2008 because its mother was hit by a car. We captured the cub and sent it to a rehab facility so that it could learn to live on its own after being returned to Yosemite the next year. (We’ve done this successfully with several other bears in the past decade.) The bear was doing fine, more or less, this spring and early summer, and many people saw the bear grazing in the meadow. Sadly, this bear was also hit and killed by a car earlier this year.

The sad irony is that nearly all the bears hit by cars are the ones we don’t see frequenting campgrounds and parking lots in search of food… they’re the truly wild ones.