In 1866, Frederick Law Olmsted (the same Olmsted who helped design Central Park, among others) was a member of the commission entrusted with managing the Yosemite Grant. He wrote a lengthy report about Yosemite, which today serves as a sort of ignored prophecy:

The first point to be kept in mind then is the preservation and maintenance as exactly as is possible of the natural scenery; the restriction, that is to say, within the narrowest limits consistent with the necessary accommodation of visitors, of all artificial constructions and the prevention of all constructions markedly inharmonious with the scenery or which would unnecessarily obscure, distort or detract from the dignity of the scenery.

In addition to the more immediate and obvious arrangements by which this duty is enforced, there are two considerations which should not escape attention.

First; the value of the district in its present condition as a museum of natural science and the danger — indeed the certainty — that without care many of the species of plants now flourishing upon it will be lost and many interesting objects be defaced or obscured if not destroyed….

Second; it is important that it should be remembered that in permitting the sacrifice of anything that would be of the slightest value to future visitors to the convenience, bad taste, playfulness, carelessness, or wanton destructiveness of present visitors, we probably yield in each case the interest of uncounted millions to the selfishness of a few individuals… It is but sixteen years since the Yosemite was first seen by a white man, several visitors have since made a journey of several thousand miles at large cost to see it, and notwithstanding the difficulties which now interpose, hundreds resort to it annually. Before many years, if proper facilities are offered, these hundreds will become thousands and in a century the whole number of visitors will be counted by millions. An injury to the scenery so slight that it may be unheeded by any visitor now, will be one multiplied by these millions. But again, the slight harm which the few hundred visitors of this year might do, if no care were taken to prevent it, would not be slight, if it should be repeated by millions. At some time, therefore, laws to prevent an unjust use by individuals of that which is not individual but public property, must be made and rigidly enforced. The principle of justice involved is the same now that it will be then; such laws as this principle demands will be more easily enforced, and there will be less hardship in their action, if the abuses they are designed to prevent are never allowed to become customary but are checked while they are yet of unimportant consequence. It should, then, be made the duty of the Commission to prevent a wanton or careless disregard on the part of anyone entering the Yosemite or the Grove, of the rights of posterity as well as of contemporary visitors, and the Commission should be clothed with proper authority and given the necessary means for this purpose.

This duty of preservation is the first which falls upon the State under the Act of Congress, because the millions who are hereafter to benefit by the Act have the largest interest in it, and the largest interest should be first and most strenuously guarded.

For the first time since 1996, Yosemite received over four million visitors this past year. Enough said.

(You can read the full 1866 report at http://www.yosemite.ca.us/library/olmsted/report.html.)

Yosemite is worthless.

I mean it.

The US Senate agrees.

The Senate discussed this worthless place in 1864. Senator John Conness of California said, in reference to Yosemite, that these “premises in the Sierra Nevada mountains…are for all public purposes worthless” and “of no value to the Government.” Another senator (William Kelley of Pennsylvania) was later paraphrased as saying that Yosemite Valley was a “far inferior wonder” compared to Yellowstone.

By then, Yosemite (and its native inhabitants) had already been disrespected by the name the place had received in 1851. The Mariposa Battalion, venturing into the Yosemite area to forcibly remove all Indians they encountered, figured that they should name the place after the Indians who had (up until then) lived there. They had been told that the Indians that lived in Yosemite Valley were called “Yohemite” (or something similar). Thus, they named the place Yosemite. Unfortunately, the people living in Yosemite Valley called themselves “Ahwahneechee” (which translates to people of Ahwahnee; Ahwahnee means “place of the gaping mouth”). More unfortunately, “Yohemite” means something like “killers.” Since other local Indians apparently referred to the Ahwahneechee as Yohemites, it’s interpreted to mean “among them are killers.” It’s really unclear why they were called that.

Regardless, history is clear: Yosemite is worthless, inferior to Yellowstone, and full of killers. So, if you’re thinking of visiting Yosemite, you might reconsider: you’ll apparently have a much better experience at Yellowstone.

(You can read about the debates about creating Yosemite and Yellowstone at http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/runte1/chap3.htm and http://xroads.virginia.edu/~MA96/RAILROAD/ystone.html.)

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…

In a follow-up of sorts to my last post, a visit to Yosemite resulted in me changing my college major to geology. Of course, after working in Yosemite for a few years, my interest in geology waned as my interest in bears grew. Yosemite can move your interests.

Anyway, for those who haven’t seen it, watch this nine-minute video about rockfalls in Yosemite (part of the Yosemite Nature Notes video podcast). It includes some amazing footage of the 2009 rockfall behind The Ahwahnee. (This footage is so fascinating, I’ve watched it probably a few dozen times—I guess my interest in geology hasn’t completely faded!)

If you liked that one, check out the other great episodes.

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…).