Bears in the Neighborhood – Part 1

By Jeff Keay

Courtesy Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park

This is Part 1 of a three-part series.

The ringing telephone grabbed my attention just as I was getting ready for bed.

“Jeff, this is dispatch. We have a large black bear in Upper Pines Campground damaging cars.”

Throwing on my National Park Service uniform I hustled out the door, jumped in my truck, and sped to the office. There I grabbed a capture rifle, darts, and immobilization medicine, then rushed to the campground. The night air was cool as winter approached in mid-November, 1978, and we had hoped bear problems had ended for the season. Apparently not.

As I entered the campground, I drove toward a small crowd that indicated the bear’s location. I slipped out of the truck, capture rifle and dart in-hand, and positioned myself for a better view of the bear. The large, medium brown black bear stood butt in the air, leaning on the back end of a small sedan. It took me a minute to realize what the bear was doing, and my mouth dropped as I watched in admiration. The massive male bear reached his right paw into the closed trunk of a sedan, through a hole where a taillight used to be. Shards of plastic lay on the ground. He feasted on plastic-wrapped food he pulled out through the hole.

After estimating the bear’s weight, I loaded a dart with the appropriate amount of medicine and fed it into the capture rifle. Slipping through the crowd I positioned myself where I had a clear shot at the bear and a safe backstop. Squeezing the trigger, the dart flew true and landed in the bear’s rump. The big bear jumped and headed for the woods. After a short chase the chemical immobilization medicine did its job and he laid down quietly and dozed off to sleep.

The tag in his right ear read 259, an adult male, and he weighed an impressive 450 pounds. Checking our records, I noted that this was his third capture that year, all in Yosemite Valley. I released him the following day near Mather Ranger Station, a distance of 29 miles, and in a direction he hadn’t been before. Unfortunately, he returned again the following May and again caused significant vehicle damage. He was euthanized following that capture.

This type of property damage was all too common, and the ultimate outcome way to frequent in Yosemite National Park, California. The Park averaged 254 property damage incidents each year and over $28,000 in damage estimates annually, from 1975 through 1985. Bears smashed windshields, ripped convertible tops, and tore upholstery. The sharply curved claws of black bears, and their powerful shoulder muscles, allowed them to get a purchase on the metal frame around car door windows and bend them out horizontally, breaking the glass and giving the bear access to the vehicle interior and any food stored inside. They bent camping trailer doors and sometimes removed them completely. Bears learned to bite holes into canned foods with their canines, and lick the contents that oozed out. Then, there was the damage to bears themselves: shredded claws and broken canines.

Once the National Park Service closed open pit garbage dumps in 1970, and installed bear-proof dumpsters and garbage cans by 1975, the bears turned to visitor campsites, accessing food left on picnic tables and in coolers. The Park then required visitors to store food and other odiferous items inside vehicles. People with vehicles without trunks were encouraged to cover the coolers and food containers with a blanket or clothing in hopes of disguising them. Bears quickly learned to recognize food items and food containers and would go to great lengths to access them.

My years as a wildlife biologist taught me that animals are highly specialized and extremely effective at what they need to do to survive. For bears, it’s all about eating; they know how to find food. Black bears tear apart rotten logs or turn over large rocks to find grubs or colonial insects. Bears have an insane curiosity, driven by their quest for food, food not often readily visible. It’s been said that a bear’s sense of smell is seven times that of a bloodhound, and 100 times better than ours, and they can smell food over a mile away. When bears find a novel object in their environment, they mess with it. It doesn’t matter what it is, they will manipulate it with their paws and chew it. If it turns out to contain food, they will remember it, and where they found it. I heard of one hunter who stored a five-gallon can of fuel in the back-country preparing for a fall hunt. He returned later to find the can pulverized by a bear and all his fuel drained out onto the ground. Bears just like to mess with stuff.

Black and grizzly bears typically hibernate for several months each year, and must obtain a full year’s worth of nutrition in six to nine months. Yosemite bears live in black bear paradise with abundant natural food. Yet the draw to human food items seemed addictive. Why?

It turns out that bears have a simple digestive system very similar to ours. Their diet is similar too, focusing on nuts, berries, vegetation, and meat, often in the form of carrion, or the newborn young of deer or other ungulates. Their teeth are even similar to ours, having sharp incisors in front and broad flat molars for crushing in the back. Human food items, high in protein, fats, and carbohydrates are exactly what bears need to put on weight for growth, winter denning, and for birthing and nursing cubs. And just think, that food, and all of its calories, is abundantly concentrated in one easy to access location.

Yosemite National Park launched a comprehensive Human Bear Management Program in 1975, designed to thwart bear attempts to access human foods and reduce the significant property damage that followed the closing of open pit garbage dumps. The plan had five components: 1) public information and education, 2) removal of artificial food sources, 3) enforcement of regulations, 4) control of problem bears, and 5) research and monitoring.

Public information and education included brochures, signs, naturalist presentations, and displays at visitor centers. The Park even produced a short movie that demonstrated the problem and ended by killing a bear that had become too bold. Even this attempt to tug at visitor heart strings didn’t improve campers’ efforts to store their food properly.

Law enforcement officials patrolled campgrounds to make sure foods were stored in vehicles, but few citations were written and non-compliance was common. The approach of issuing costly citations used in Yellowstone, where grizzly bears seriously threatened human safety, proved more effective.

Bears that frequented developed areas were captured and visible ear tags were affixed to help us identify individual bears and repeat offenders. Nuisance animals were translocated short distances from front country areas to alleviate the immediate problem, but often eventually returned. Bears that caused extensive property damage or were deemed a threat to human safety were euthanized. Tagging and monitoring helped us to understand which individual animals caused extensive property damage or became a threat to human safety. Our team of biologists and technicians captured 120 to 150 bears each year and killed on average 7 bears.

It wasn’t until we installed steel bear-proof food storage lockers in each front country campsite, that we started to see a decrease in bear-caused property damage. Starting with one of the most chronic problem areas, White Wolf Campground along the Tioga Pass Road, car break-ins dropped dramatically. The few incidents that followed were rarely associated with the campground, but some occurred when visitors used the lockers improperly. One female bear strolled into the campground each day about dinner time. Years of experience around people taught her that humans weren’t a threat. Without hesitation she walked through the campground looking for someone preparing a meal. People scattered as she approached leaving her full reign.

The food storage lockers were large enough to hold a couple of good-sized coolers and still had room to stuff smaller items around them. Visitors were more than happy to comply, and keep the food items out of their vehicles where they risked extensive and expensive damage. Removing the availability of human foods was the key, and it had to be simple and easy to use. Food storage lockers were installed in the remainder of the Tioga Road campgrounds through the 1980s, and eventually throughout the entire Park. Everyone’s proper use of food storage lockers and bear-proof garbage containers virtually eliminated bear human conflicts.

Three historic apple orchards were protected in Yosemite Valley and served as a great attractant to bears, frustrating our efforts to keep bears out of developed areas. One fall evening my wife and I loaded our children into our station wagon and went for a drive, wondering if we might see a bear. The apples were abundant and black bears couldn’t resist the nutritious temptation. I thought the Curry Village parking lot, nestled under an orchard full of ripe apples, would be a good place to start. I turned a corner so my headlights panned through the dark orchard. I hit the brakes as a very large and fat bear came into view. Her ear tag indicated an adult female. Her belly was so large and round that it extended sideways, and reached within four inches of the ground. As she tried to run her monstrous belly swayed side to side throwing her off balance and making her stumble. A roar of laughter erupted in our vehicle as she wobbled out of sight. I’m sure those historic orchards continue to attract bears today, relentless in their efforts to secure an abundance of nutritious food. As a result, it places them close to people and their food, causing no end of work for technicians who regularly chase them off.