Smart Bear Tricks


A few months ago, I posted a story about a bear who opened a car car door then got stuck in the car when the door closed behind him.

Apparently, this isn’t uncommon, because it just happened in Colorado. (I’ve heard bears in Colorado have also figured out to use the door handles to open car doors.)

Mail Online

We’re going to need some backup here: Car thief turns out to be… a hungry bear

By Mail Foreign Service
Last updated at 4:02 PM on 16th October 2009

With the alarm blaring and a shadowy figure rummaging around in the vehicle it looked like just another car theft in progress.

But when the police arrived they realise they might need more than handcuffs to collar this intruder.

For it was not a human, but a bear, that had lumbered into the vehicle.

The animal had apparently crept up to the unlocked car, opened the door and climbed inside.

Read the rest of the article (includes pictures!)…

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On Wednesday morning in Old El Portal, a resident there was about to get into her car when she noticed a sleeping bear inside her car… with all the doors and windows still closed!

Blue 1 asleep in car

Blue 1 asleep in car (photo copyright Paul Pyle)

Sure enough, veteran bear Blue 1 (aka Blue 50, Orange 13) had opened up the car door, gone inside the car, then found himself trapped because the door closed behind him (the car was parked on an incline). He’s not the first Yosemite bear to open car doors. He’s an ever-present bear (usually found in Yosemite Valley… perhaps he was looking for a ride back from El Portal?) who seems to get into trash (but not usually into people’s campsites… he doesn’t like people at all). He’s been in dumpsters dozens of times (and been trapped in some of them). Lucky for him, we’ve found him in the dumpster each time he got stuck before the trash truck came. He also loves bear traps… he’s been trapped about 18 times in his 17 years. So, it’s clear he likes small metal enclosed spaces… but now he’s found the most comfortable one of them all!

Blue 1 peering out the window (photo by Paul Pyle)

Blue 1 peering out the window (photo copyright Paul Pyle)

So, it seems that once he found himself inside the car, he tried to get out, but wasn’t able to figure out the inside door latch (hence “smart(ish)”). So, he left a present and took a nap… just like he does when he’s caught in a bear trap.

Aftermath of Blue 1 in car. There was no food in the car. (Photo by Paul Pyle)

Aftermath of Blue 1 in car. There was no food in the car. (Photo copyright Paul Pyle)

A ranger responded and let him out by opening the door (and running)… the bear ran away, too.

What will this curious bear get into (and hopefully, out of) next?

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…

One of my coworkers took a bear observation report today from some rock climbers. They were climbing the second pitch of Yosemite Valley’s popular Bishop’s Terrace, which is a two-pitch rock climb, when they looked up and saw a bear. This climb is one difficult enough that it would be difficult for novice rock climbers, and most would use ropes and other forms of protection (an unroped fall would probably cause serious injury or death).

This isn’t the first report of rock climbing bears, but it’s still surprising.

So, here’s my last post on this topic… for now (there will never be a last post on this topic).

  • Yosemite has gone through its fair share of food lockers. One of the first years I worked here, I read about new food lockers at White Wolf. A week or so later, I heard about how the bears had figured them out already. This is a long and continuing tradition in Yosemite. The other long and continuing tradition in Yosemite is people not figuring how to properly latch the lockers (this is actually the bigger problem). Some locker designs were so complicated (to keep bears out) that people couldn’t figure out how to get the latch(es) closed properly, resulting in the bears successfully playing with the latch(es) and getting lots of food. This continues to be one of the most common food storage problems we see in campgrounds. The latest locker design we use is really simple and we surely see these left open a lot less often than some of the older ones, but they’re expensive to replace.
  • Traps. OK, so, we aren’t trying to keep bears out of traps, but the presumption is that they’re “bearproof” once the bear is inside. Not so. White 60 (previously known as Blue 6 and Blue 10) seems to have figured this out. A trap was set at The Ahwahnee several nights and the wildlife crew found, several times, that the trap was closed, the bait bag was gone, but the bear wasn’t inside. One night, they saw White 60 in the parking lot and chased him away (as is the usual practice, to keep bears wary of people). They chased him up into the rocks, presumably along the bear’s typical route, and started finding their bait bags. No one ever saw it happen, but the speculation is that this fairly large bear was able to snag the bait bag while keeping his feet out the back of the trap, preventing the door from closing. He’s been trapped since, so either he forgot this trick or our bait bag technique is different (which, come to think of it, I think it is).
  • This is one of my favorite stories about one of my favorite bears, Yellow 53 (aka Yellow 54, Yellow 44). A few summers ago, we all started noticing an increasing number of cars with doors open in the campgrounds late at night. At first, it seemed like the usual randomness that happens at night–someone gets up to get something from their car but is too tired to remember to close the door. But, when we started seeing multiple cars near each other with multiple doors open, we started getting suspicious. Another ranger was driving through the campground one night and saw Yellow 53 walk up to a car and open up the (unlocked) door using the door handle. Most of these cars didn’t seem to have food in them, so I think this was becoming a part of his normal foraging activity since it was so easy to do. It’s a really good indication of bears’ curiosity. As to how he figured this out, I think it was a combination of his familiarity with the concept of a latch (see 1st bullet) and him having spent a lot of time at the edge of campgrounds, watching people.

So, that’s all for now. I’ll probably have another story soon…

My last post got me thinking about other “bearproof” things bears have gotten into. Here are a few examples:

  • Bear canisters (we actually call these bear resistant). Many (if not most) brand new canisters that have been tested mechanically and with zoo bears end up failing when wild bears get their paws on them. Usually, these problems are easily remedied with minor modifications, but it’s still intriguing. The venerable Garcia canister, which has been around for close to 20 years, has had surprisingly few failures. But, it just doesn’t hold up to a bear banging it against a rock for 45 minutes (Orange 19 provided us with that information). Another bear, coincidentally tagged Orange 91, rolled several of a group’s canisters into Illilouette Creek.
  • Looking into a "bearproof" dumpster

    Looking into a "bearproof" dumpster with a bear inside

    Dumpsters. The iconic “bearproof” dumpsters scattered all around Yosemite, with the distinctive “half dome” top, worked great for many years… until, in the 1990s (or late 1980s?), wildlife techs began looking inside and finding bears trapped. It turns out that empty dumpsters are hard to get out of (full dumpsters are easy to get out of: less reaching required). Bears have been trapped in them without anyone finding them, resulting in a bear dying over the winter and another who ended up wandering around the Mariposa County landfill. A few bears have (spectacularly) escaped from trash trucks after being dumped into them. In any case, now dumpsters have clips (but not everyone bothers to use them).

  • Trash cans. The half dome trash cans are also all over Yosemite (although a bit less so now than in the past). When they’re too full, bears can get into them. They can also (when not installed correctly) knock the cans out from the “bearproof” part, or, when not closed correctly, can flip up the “bearproof” part.

That’s only half my list… I’ll save the rest for later.

Black bears in Yosemite have a penchant for breaking into cars while in search of food. Prior to 1999, when we found a car containing food and couldn’t locate the owners, there wasn’t much we could do except come back a few hours later and take a bear incident report after a bear visited the car.

So, in 1999 (I think that’s when it was), the park constructed a bearproof vehicle impound lot. Now, when we find a car containing food after dark and we can’t locate the owner, we can tow the car and put it in the bearproof impound lot. The car is safe, the bear is safe from getting human food and breakin-related injuries, and the owner, while initially annoyed, has probably been saved from hundreds of dollars in repairs (minus the tow bill + citation).

Over the winter, we found that a car inside the impound lot had been broken into by a bear… after the car was impounded. We found bear hair on the barbed wire atop the chain-link fence (12 feet high, I think it is). There was also a small section of the impound lot that was bounded by two wooden fences, which the bear had broken through. (The bear seems to have entered one way and exited the other.) So, the wooden fence problem was easy to fix: add chain-link fencing along the wooden fence.

The other day, a ranger noticed a bear atop the chain-link fence. Once, we could say it was a fluke, but twice? So, our task for this week will be to try to re-bearproof the impound lot. My thought is to add wood planks or something along the outside of the fence, so that the bear (theoretically) can’t climb the fence. We’ll see…

Really, the word “bearproof” shouldn’t exist, because bears seem to figure out how to get into practically everything, even after it’s been “bearproof” for a decade!