History


Ten years ago, I envisioned a time in the future when Yosemite visitors would sit back in their chairs around the campfire and remember longingly how the bears used to walk into campsites to snatch food, just as some of today’s long-time visitors recall bears visiting the dumps (or, for really long-time visitors, the formal bear feeding shows). Like the bear feeding shows and the open dumps, some day, bears in campgrounds would be but a memory.

I no longer have this vision.

It all makes sense to me now why it is Yosemite Valley has such a persistent “bear problem.” It’s not really the bears. It’s not even so much the people. It’s the place.

Of course, Yosemite Valley isn’t the only area of Yosemite where bears get human food. We can get persistent problems in Wawona, Glacier Point, Crane Flat, Hetch Hetchy, White Wolf area, Tuolumne Meadows, and a few places in the wilderness. Yet, none of these places–not one of them–has a significant “bear problem” consistently from year to year. The only place in Yosemite that has persistent bear problems every year is Yosemite Valley.

So, what sets Yosemite Valley apart from all these other places? It is awesome bear habitat. It has lots of meadows (bears eat grass in spring), plenty of forest (and downed trees containing grubs), abundant berries, and large groves of oaks–especially black oaks (bears seem to prefer black oak acorns over the other oaks’ acorns). There’s also plenty of water. (And plenty of historic apple trees.) I don’t think you can find this combination and abundance of food sources, within such a small area, anywhere else in the park. Bears frequent Yosemite Valley because there is a lot of food there. Add people to the mix, and there’s even more food there. Add lots of people to the mix, and bears get plenty of experience being around people, which allows them to become habituated–that is, to become comfortable around people. A bear that’s comfortable around people is more likely to follow its nose into a campground and get human food, which causes the bear to become even more habituated as it tries even more to get human food, which often leads to the bear becoming aggressive.

Yosemite Valley is the main attraction in Yosemite National Park… not only for people, but also for bears, and the presence of people’s food makes it all that more attractive to bears.

We can improve food storage more and be more aggressive at scaring bears away, but there will always be a lot of bears in Yosemite Valley, and some of them inevitably will get into trouble, every year, forever.

Unless I’m wrong.

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February 11 marked the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s departure from Springfield to Washington, DC, where he would become one of our greatest presidents. And, I don’t think he’s one of our greatest presidents just because he signed into law the act protecting Yosemite and, in effect, creating the first national park. This is not Lincoln’s mysterious connection to Yosemite, either.

If you have read much about Abraham Lincoln, you know of Ward Hill Lamon. Lamon became a law partner with Lincoln in 1852. When Lincoln was elected to the presidency, he asked Lamon to accompany him to Washington. Lamon became his personal bodyguard, among other things. They were close friends.

If you’re familiar with Yosemite, the name “Lamon” probably sounds familiar. There’s Lamon’s Orchard, named for James Lamon, whose grave you may have noticed in the Yosemite Cemetery. Are these two Lamons related?

Born in Bunker Hill, VA (now WV), James Lamon’s father was John Lamon. Ward Hill Lamon was born just 10 miles away to George Lamon, Jr. John and George, Jr. were brothers, making James and Ward Hill first cousins. Did they ever know each other? Did they keep in touch?

One has to wonder if, when Lincoln received the Yosemite act, if Ward Hill knew that his cousin was one of Yosemite Valley’s first non-Indian residents. Lincoln expressed a desire to visit California during his second term. Was it in part because of what he’d heard about Yosemite? Surely, he saw the amazing photographs Carleton Watkins had taken of Yosemite (which circulated around Capitol Hill before the Yosemite act passed). But, did he learn anything about Yosemite from Ward Hill Lamon?

I can’t help but wonder if, when Lincoln got the Yosemite act to sign, Ward Hill might’ve said something like, “Oh, Yosemite! My cousin is a settler there. I hear it’s a truly wonderful place!”

This is the mystery.

(The Lamon House has a Lamon family tree, which is where I discovered this connection.)