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.

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.

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.)

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…).

Despite having many bear stories, I’m always at a loss to tell one when someone asks me for my best/favorite/coolest/most exciting bear story. The other day, I realized that one of the stories I don’t tell very often is one of my favorites (and involves one of my favorite bears).

One the night of July 4, 2007, I was using radio telemetry to try to catch up to a bear known as Orange 5. As I got closer, I finally caught a glimpse of her in the distance, in an Upper Pines campsite. There was a man in the campsite, standing not more than a few feet from his picnic table, with his back to the picnic table. He was doing something like washing dishes–I don’t remember exactly.

Yes, there was Orange 5 and a man in the same campsite together. Orange 5 put her paws up onto the picnic table bench and nosed around, looking completely at home, completely unconcerned–like she belonged there, like she was the man’s pet. Yet, she was a mere few feet from this man! I remember watching this several-second episode with some surprise. It was surreal. She was just so comfortable so close to this person!

Not finding anything to eat, she went to the next campsite and did the same thing, before I caught up to her and chased her away.

To this day, the man has no idea he had a 200-pound bear a few feet from him in his campsite!

That is how stealthy, quiet, and sneaky Yosemite’s black bears are.

Yesterday, I saw a sow with two yearlings who we’ve probably never seen before (and certainly haven’t captured before–they were untagged). While they may not realize it yet, the time these yearlings have with their mother is short, and they will find themselves on their own probably in about a month. This seemed like a close-knit family–the yearlings were staying very close to their mother. What will they think when she abandons them (so she can mate again)?

The same day, I read that an already-abandoned yearling in Great Smoky Mountains National Park bit a visitor who allowed the bear to approach him for a photograph. The visitor received a minor wound not requiring medical attention, a cool story, and probably some nice photographs. The 60-pound yearling received an early end to her life.

I’ve noticed over the years that yearlings–the teenagers of the bear world–behave rather similarly to teenagers of the human world: they think they’re invincible. I’ve noticed how they seem to have little fear of people and frequently approach people or allow people to approach them. Oddly, this is something they wouldn’t have tolerated while with their mother–and (if they make it past their yearling phase) is something they tolerate a lot less when they’re older.

So, the question is: how will these yearlings fare? It depends on us respecting these bears from a distance, lest they meet the fate of the Smokies yearling.

Sow and yearlings

Sow and yearlings in Yosemite Valley

(You can read the Great Smoky Mountains story at the website of the Asheville Citizen-Times.)

I worked my first night shift last Friday. We saw a few different bears that night, including a bear that knows how to break into cars and houses and a young bear who appears to be completely unafraid of people (but who doesn’t… yet… know how to break into anything; I suspect she’s been fed).

But the first bear I saw that evening was in an open area in the west Valley, away from any development. The bear was grazing on grass and never noticed us looking at him from 100 yards away. He had no tags, no collar; we’d never seen him before.

It was a beautiful bear, and a truly wild one. Come fall, this bear will still be beautiful. But will he still be wild?

Yes, indeed, had you walked into the Yosemite Valley post office on Saturday morning, you would have found bear prints on the floor, caused (apparently) by the bear finding a not-empty cup of hot chocolate.

There have been various other sightings in the last few weeks in Yosemite Valley… at Curry Village, around a few different housing areas, and by Lower Yosemite Fall (where I recently had my first sighting of the year).  The Tuolumne Meadows winter rangers have seen two sets of bear tracks already.

Thus it begins!