Wildlife


White 52 was a clever sow (female bear) who I had the pleasure (and, occasionally, displeasure) of meeting more times than I can remember. She was adept at getting human food, from campsites, cars, and buildings. We caught her in a trap a few years ago and figured… hmm, why not try to move her out of Yosemite Valley and see what happens?

So, we moved her out near Hetch Hetchy. At first, she headed up into Hetch Hetchy, then reversed direction and visited Camp Mather, just outside the park. Next we heard, she was lingering at a US Forest Service campground along Highway 108. We got a call saying that we should expect her ear tag and radio collar in the mail soon… because they were planning to trap and kill her for her behavior in the campground. She left the campground before she got trapped. More time went by, then one night that fall, we found her in a trap in Yosemite Valley! Earlier that year, she weighed in around 220 pounds (fairly large for a sow in Yosemite)… after her lengthy journey, she returned weighing 282 pounds! She traveled so far, but still managed to gain weight!

White 52 demonstrated almost all the reasons relocating bears doesn’t work:

  • Relocated bears usually return to where they came from. (If someone dragged you out of your home and dropped you off 50 miles away, wouldn’t you try to get back home?) Most bears return more quickly than White 52 (usually in a matter of days or weeks). (There’s an old joke that some bears beat the wildlife truck back to the Valley.)
  • Bears that don’t return to their home usually get in trouble somewhere else. This isn’t so good because, well, the bear’s behavior hasn’t changed. And food storage outside Yosemite isn’t as good as it is inside Yosemite. Not only that, but wildlife management agencies outside Yosemite tend to be less tolerant of bears, so bears spending time in developed areas are far more likely to be killed when outside Yosemite.
  • Speaking of food storage not being as good outside the park, that probably contributed to her major weight gain (although, she returned in fall, a time when bears naturally gain weight).
  • While we don’t know in this case, White 52 was a fairly dominant bear, so wherever she went, she may have displaced other bears. All the good bear habitat is taken and by adding a bear to an area already fully populated with bears, we’re messing with the bears that are already living there. For less dominant bears, putting them in areas populated with more dominant bears is an additional stressor as they scramble to find a place where they’re not so unwelcome.
  • Undoubtedly, many relocated bears die because they’re unable to find food or are hit by cars as they try to return home.
White 52 didn’t live much longer because we had to kill her as a result of her aggressive behavior, which began when she showed up in Yosemite Valley campgrounds as a young bear. Relocating her didn’t help her. Only proper food storage could’ve saved her.

Two stories are filling up my Twitter stream this morning. One is about Horsetail Fall, which, at this time of year, glows orange with the setting sun, and the other is about the alpine chipmunk, a high-elevation resident of Yosemite. What could these two stories possibly have in common (other than Yosemite)?
First, a little background.

Horsetail Fall is one of many tiny, barely noticeable waterfalls in Yosemite Valley, especially when compared to the nearby waterfalls that are much larger and more famous. It flows off the eastern side of El Capitan during winter and spring, and is positioned in just such a way that the setting sun colors it orange in mid to late February (if there’s enough water and not too many clouds). The effect is unusual if not unique, and very cool to see when conditions are right. It’s even more popular because of its comparison to the Fire Fall. (Beginning infrequently as early as the 1870s and recurring on a more regular basis later on, until 1968, park employees would build a bonfire at the top of Glacier Point, then, as it got dark, they would slowly shove the embers over the edge, creating the Fire Fall.) The result was what looked like a glowing waterfall.) Horsetail Fall with the right light looks similar and, better yet, is completely natural.

The alpine chipmunk is one of the species of chipmunks that lives in Yosemite. As the name suggests, this chipmunk lives at the highest elevations of the park. A recent study found that the elevational range of the alpine chipmunk had shrunk (risen) by over 1,600 feet since the 1910s (when it was found as low as 7,800 feet). Since the 1910s, the average temperature in Yosemite has risen by over 5 F°. It’s safe to assume that rising temperatures have pushed these tiny, temperature-sensitive animals higher in elevation because the lower portions of their range have become too warm. Now that their elevational range is smaller, the amount of land they have to live in has shrunk dramatically. I’m not sure of the numbers, but a large portion of the park is at or above 7,800 feet, but only a small portion of the park is at or above 9,400 feet. With such a loss of  habitat, it’s no surprise that this study found that genetic diversity had declined significantly (making the population more susceptible to disease and less able to cope with further environmental change). With (relatively) extreme warming over many more decades, the chipmunk could eventually have its elevational range exist only in the sky, above the highest peaks of Yosemite. But, with loss of genetic diversity, it could become extirpated (locally extinct) much sooner.
So, what does this chipmunk story have to do with Horsetail Fall?

While many people (but hardly any scientists) argue over whether humans are at least partially the cause of climate change, climate change is an observable fact in Yosemite. The impacts of climate change are not limited to the alpine squirrel or some of the other plants and animals that could be impacted with continuing change. Climate change is slowly reducing the majesty of Yosemite’s waterfalls. As average winter snow level continues to rise over the decades, the area of Yosemite getting a snowpack will continue to decline, which means less snowmelt to feed Yosemite’s waterfalls. Spring runoff in Yosemite will be less dramatic (runoff following winter storms might be the best time to see waterfalls). With its tiny and relatively low-elevation drainage area, one of the first victims of this change will be Horsetail Fall, which might rarely flow, even in winter.

Climate change is not only shrinking the alpine chipmunk’s habitat, but also shrinking Horsetail Fall’s already tiny snowpack. When the alpine chipmunk becomes an endangered species, Horsetail Fall and its elusive orange glow may, like the Fire Fall, become just a memory.

 


Yosemite Nature Notes has some quite excellent videos about Horsetail Fall, snowpack, and climate change:

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.

I first started working in Yosemite’s bear program in 1999 and quickly became acquainted with a few bears, Blue 23 being one of them. The second time  I saw him, he was eating chocolate chip cookies in Housekeeping Camp and, before I had a chance to scare him away, he bluff charged me (my first, but not last, such experience). Blue 23 was the first bear I spent a lot of time with, the first bear I helped capture and work up (what we do when we capture a bear: an exam, measurements, give a tag or collar sometimes, etc.), and the first bear I helped to kill. It’s a cruel irony that the bears we spend the most time with and get most attached to (even when we try not to) are also the bears we’re most likely to end up having to kill because they’re usually the ones we’re seeing in the campgrounds most often.

Blue 23 was a six-year-old boar (male bear) and weighed 305 pounds when we killed him in May, 2000 as a result of his very aggressive behavior. (If you don’t understand why we have to kill bears, read this post.) I still carry his ear tag with me when I’m at work.

One night, a few coworkers and I went out to get some stock video footage of bears and we recorded Blue 23 investigating the Curry Orchard and Boystown areas. (The videographer had never been bluff charged by a bear, and especially not while looking through a zoomed-in video camera. Nevertheless, that part was funny for me and my other coworker–that was a pretty minor bluff charge as far as we were concerned.)

My mention of his ear tag reminded me of something I wrote a few years ago… I’ll paste it in:

Blue 23’s tag, or The Smell of Fear


For many years, I could still smell it.

An otherwise slightly-dirty plastic blue tag with a number 23 still kept a distinct, musky smell. Each year, the smell faded just a little until one year I realized I couldn’t smell it anymore.

Like the bear this tag once accompanied, the smell was gone.

It was the smell of fear.

The fear of the people this bear scared.

My fear, as this bear ran toward me again and again…

would he stop—each time, I wondered—would this be the time he wouldn’t stop?

The fear of this bear as he was darted and drugged. (And I thought he had no fear.)

The fear of those who captured him;

fearful of what they knew would happen.

The fear of those who killed him;

fearful they had done the wrong thing.

The fear of this bear as he died.

What was gone wasn’t the smell of this bear.

It was the memory of fear.


Inspired one slightly snowy night while listening—over and over again—to Alison Krauss and Union Station’s Doesn’t Have to be This Way.

December 28, 2004, 11 pm.

(The tag has not lost its smell… yet.)

Ranger Jeff Lahr, who I had the pleasure of working with for a few years when I worked in Wawona, wrote a blog post about an interesting August night in Wawona Campground…

Two Beers and a Bear

August 13, 2010

My final campfire of the season and the topic is, of course, bears. It has been a strange week and this was a great way to end the week and the season.

As I walk around the campground (“roving” in RangerSpeak), a family calls me over. They are crowded around their bear box (food storage).

“Ranger, there’s something in our bear box.”

Not so unusual; often food can be found in the food storage locker.

“… and we want you to remove it for us.”

Read the rest of the post…

One night in 1999, after my partner and I chased a bear out Upper Pines Campground, we walked back through the campsite the bear had run through.

The person staying in that campsite had just arrived and was astounded by what he had just seen. In his state of near-ecstasy, he proclaimed us heroes, then went on refer to the bear as “a beautiful piece of machinery.” He was truly in awe. After he calmed down, he told us that he had just arrived (after dark) and, having been drawn to Yosemite by the likes of Half Dome and Yosemite Falls, was quite excited to see Yosemite Valley the next morning.

This man came to Yosemite in search of Half Dome and the waterfalls. Yet, I imagine that now, 11 years later, if you were to ask him what he remembers from his trip to Yosemite, it would not be Yosemite Falls or Half Dome—it would be the bear.

As the Yosemite Blog points out in point #6 of its tips on how to Make your Next Trip to Yosemite Better, those with an open mind can come to Yosemite and find something other than they what they were looking for. Has that been true for you?

Many nights working with bears are uneventful (relatively speaking); other nights are crazy busy. Friday night was one such night.

We decided to start off our night by visiting the picnic areas to educate people about bears and make sure no bears were around. Before we even had a chance to head that way, there were two bear calls at the same time–one in Curry Village and the other in Upper Pines Campground. The wildlife techs responded to Curry Village while we went over to Upper Pines, where we found a bear vigorously scratching himself (or… something) at the edge of the campground. We chased him off, and since there were two campground rangers working in Upper Pines, we decided to try again to visit the picnic areas.

Alas, we were passing Camp 4 when there was a call for a bear at Housekeeping Camp. The wildlife techs were still busy with the Curry Village bear, so we turned around and met Ryan, the lead wildlife tech, there (he’d been working in the office). We found the bear walking on the bike path along the road by Housekeeping Camp. We followed him for a short while, then he crossed the street (the people in the car were probably confused why we had them stopped for a good 10 seconds, but their question was answered when the bear lumbered across the road in front of them). He swam across the river, headed toward the day use parking (aka Camp 6).

So, we all drove over there and eventually found him skirting the parking lot, but he then went behind a fence and was in an area away from the parking lot. We went to the other end of the fence (few hundred yards away) to see if he’d continued in the direction he’d been traveling, and to make sure he didn’t enter the parking lot. We stayed there a few minutes and decided we weren’t going to see him, so we walked back into the parking lot, only to have a visitor say something about a bear in a car.

I interpreted the visitor to mean a bear had been in a car–surely the bear we were following couldn’t be in a car already. I walked up to the car… to find the same bear we’d been following inside the car, focused on a box of granola cereal. Ryan came over with his shotgun and the bear exited the car, to be hit with three rubber slugs as he ran toward the fence–and vanished.

Now, this is a solid wood fence with vertical slats. I tried to chase the bear once Ryan was done shooting, assuming there was a missing slat I could squeeze through, but the bear seemingly ran through an invisible gap in the fence. I was bewildered. After a minute of searching, we found a very small space beneath the fence that he had squeezed through.

After taking the report, talking to the owners of the car after they returned, etc., we had some quiet time. Then, one of the campground rangers reported seeing a bear in Upper Pines again, so we headed there since we were close by. We drove around, checking for food storage and bears, and we saw people in a campsite looking at what we assumed (correctly) was a bear. We got out and headed toward the bear, catching sight of it. I stopped at the small creek (which is maybe six or eight feet wide and about a foot deep) because there wasn’t an obvious crossing right there, but my partner inexplicably kept going through the creek. (I remember thinking to myself, “She’s just going to go splashing through, eh?”) Well, she underestimated the creek and took probably only one or two steps before falling face-first into the creek. After checking to see if she was ok (she started to get up and head toward the bear), I crossed the creek and yelled at the bear once before breaking down in laughter, joined by my partner. It was quite funny. Oh, and there was a campsite full of visitors who saw the whole thing. (I’m glad it wasn’t me…)

Before leaving Upper Pines, we saw the bear twice more.

Back at the office, another of my coworkers reported she’d had trouble in a campsite, with a camper who had already had his food impounded, didn’t have his food stored when she was there, and (to top it off) had two makeshift squirrel traps. And he thought each of these things was humorous. Having never encountered this situation before, she didn’t think to call a protection ranger, but tried to educate him to put his food away and dismantle the squirrel traps. So, we drove back over there to see how his campsite looked now (a few hours later), only to find it looked pretty good. The campground ranger had just a few minutes prior noticed the squirrel traps in the campsite and had dismantled them himself. (Topic for the next bear team briefing: call a protection ranger when you find an animal trap in a campsite!) Based on the current situation, I didn’t think a protection ranger would be likely to issue a citation, but I passed the information on to one of them so she could check out the campsite the next night and try yet again to educate him (or cite him, if appropriate).

I spent the next few hours in Housekeeping Camp, which, aside from a few noisy sites and a naked guy at his food locker, was uneventful. (Housekeeping Camp has hired some “camp hosts” this summer to focus on food storage and they’ve made a big difference.)

Meanwhile, the wildlife techs had spent a lot of time in Curry Village with at least two bears in the area (I could hear the frustration in Ryan’s voice every time he was on the radio). It was almost the end of our shifts, but there was still a little bit of time, so I went over there to look around a bit. I found a bear running through Curry Orchard–but not the bear I expected–there was another bear around! Wildlife saw the bear leave the parking area, so, they headed back to the office while I checked out a car with food in it at the trailhead parking (a protection ranger was in the process of getting it towed). It turned out that the owners of the car came back to their car when they saw it getting towed–they were camping illegally just outside the parking lot! They had just come back from a backpacking trip and were, apparently, too tired to go stay in the nearby backpackers’ camp or remove food from their car (there are bearproof food lockers about 100 feet from where they were parked). They received a citation.

The other ranger and I were headed back to our offices when Ryan called back into service, saying that he’d just gotten a report of a bear eating out of a locker in North Pines. Since we were very close, we turned around and went over there. I got there first, and found that the bear had left a good 30 minutes prior (visitors were too scared to come out of their tent until then). I called Ryan so he could cancel his response, but as he was turning around, he found a bear on top of a car in Curry Village. Meanwhile, the North Pines bear had spent 20 minutes eating in their campsite  and seemed to sample everything in their locker–it just looked like a big pile of trash. (Please, scare bears out of your campsites when visiting Yosemite!)

And, that was the end of the night (for us, anyway–hopefully not much happened after we went home…).

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