The World's Smartest Bears

Welcome to Yosemite, iconic American landscape, hikers' paradise, and all-you-can-eat home of the wiliest bruins on earth.
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Welcome to Yosemite, iconic American landscape, hikers' paradise, and all-you-can-eat home of the wiliest bruins on earth.

Tuesday is shaping up to be a quiet night as ranger Sherri Lisius drives me and two bear techs on patrol in the Yosemite Valley. We roll through the epicenter of the park, inspecting the Yosemite Lodge truck bays, outlying cabins at the Ahwahnee, and row upon row of dumpsters. Shining tactical flashlights, we inspect each door and latch, every trash can and tabletop. Arm out the window, ranger Justin Mills waves a radio-tracking antenna back and forth.

As Mills scans the channels, there are plenty of beeps to choose from. "Looks like Blue 30 is off beyond the employee village," he reports. "White 55 is out there, but she's way distant. Yellow 20's probably still bedded down. Orange 15's pretty faint. Hasn't started up yet." Lisius stays in the truck while we disembark to cruise a series of walkways.

A dark, thigh-high form covered in dusty fur suddenly stands up from behind a streetlight. "Bear!" shouts Caitlin Lee-Roney. The bruin pivots, paws flashing as it gallops off. We race after it, screaming "Get outta here, bear!" The bruin lopes easily ahead, dropping to a shuffle whenever we fall behind. We corner Yellow Number 20 briefly as she stands against a laundry room dumpster. Lee-Roney shoots the sow in the ass with a dye-free paintball. The bear squalls and stampedes eastward. Mills pulls the earphones off with a wince. "She's heading toward the campgrounds."

As we climb into the truck, Lisius's radio crackles to life with a short monotone announcement: "Bear in North Pines Campground. Bear in North Pines Campground." It's from an automated monitoring box, indicating that a radio-collared bruin has just entered North Pines, a sprawling ponderosa grove filled with RVs, SUVs, lawn chairs, and dome tents. It's 11 p.m., and moonlight illuminates rows of stacked kiddie bikes, flaccid rafts, and Coleman-accessorized homesteads. Most grilling operations have shut down for the night, and virtually all campers have already cached their food in the bearproof metal lockers next to each picnic table.

Still, our spotlights reveal kitchens brimming with spatulas, frying pans, and paper plates going soggy from leftover barbecue. We sweep for Yellow 20, first along the forest edge, then up into the trees, but she's ditched us by swimming the Merced toward 60-site Lower Pines. It's a normal, momentary setback for the foot soldiers of Yosemite's Human-Bear Management Program. Every night from dusk to dawn, April through October, a staff of about 10 rangers, seasonals, and volunteers tries to keep the park's 350 to 400 black bears apart from 3.5 million annual visitors and their food.

Most of the action happens here in the Valley, which on an average summer's eve contains 7,000 slumbering humans and 20 to 24 resident bears. On a wild night, the team might respond to 12 or 13 calls. Even though it's early in the season, team members are already wearing down. Program leader Tori Seher is recovering from pneumonia. Lisius is driving rather than chasing because her foot has a stress fracture from sprinting on pavement in regulation work boots.

In Lower Pines, we spread out among mesh gazebos and AstroTurf rugs, keying off Justin's antenna. "Very close, very close, gotta be right here," he says. I'm recalling that we can hear him, but he can't hear us, when I hop over a trailer hitch and run smack into Yellow 20, back arched like a raccoon, snuffling the ground. She looks a lot bigger up close. I shriek the requisite expletive, and 20 splits. For half an hour, the sow vacuums her way through a campground parking lot and historic apple orchards, then lopes into Curry Village, a maze of 427 platform tents that sprawls like a surreal tourist internment camp. Eventually, Ms. 20 loses us by galloping up through the Terraces employee camp and into massive boulder piles beneath Glacier Point Apron. The rangers shoot off a few firecracker rounds, then call off the pursuit. "Fifty-yard rule," Lisius tells me at the truck. "We're defining a territory for them. If they're 50 yards from human development, not moving in, being natural, then they're off the hook."

If there's one thing that Ursus americanus is good at, it's being natural. And any time it's not sleeping or mating, that pretty much means eating. These bears don't truly hibernate in winter; their metabolism doesn't drop that far, so they're genetically designed to be four-legged forest vacuum cleaners. After slow-starving through the winter, their eating accelerates from spring to fall. By September, they might be pounding 25,000 calories a day to prep for winter.

Bears can smell food far better than a bloodhound can. They're mentally keyed to find big food sources and remember them. These imperatives make them curious, restless, smart, and generally inconvenient. If burgers are grilling, bears can smell it from miles away. If you're hoarding a Snickers bar under your pillow, you selfish bastard, they'll know it.

Bears find that our food tastes better, smells stronger, and has more caloric density than natural bear food. Once an uninitiated bruin enjoys the glucose revelation of a Double Stuf Oreo snatched from the shattered window of a Hummer, grasses, acorn, and ant grubs just don't cut it anymore.

Part of the problem is that California's black bears are doing so well. Yosemite has an estimated 350 to 400 bears. Nearby Kings Canyon has perhaps 500. Biologists say the bear population in Yosemite Valley is two or three times what natural food sources could support. People provide the rest.

Near as I can tell, even if a Valley bear wanted to avoid human food, it'd have to weave and dodge like a ninja to keep from colliding with it. Nowhere on earth is a bear population in close quarters with so many campers and their food. The inevitable result is 400 to 1,600 reported bear-human encounters each year, 90 percent in developed frontcountry.

It's a seasonal interspecies hide-and-seek match fueled by ursine appetite, ritual overeating, and an endless stream of naïve visitors. The most cursory tour makes it obvious that Yosemite doesn't really have a bear problem. It has a huge people problem, and a few smart, stubborn, hungry bears.

Purse Snatchers and Kamikazes

"There are definitely some genius bears here, and they have all day to sit there and figure stuff out," says Tori Seher, head of Yosemite's human-bear program. "We thought those mailbox-style dumpsters were one solution. But now some bears just mail themselves." New dumpsters have carabiner clips, which should work because bears don't have opposable thumbs. But people often forget to clip the biners, so bear techs have to check unlatched dumpsters to prevent bears from getting compacted.

When you're talking bear management, the name of the game is food storage—designing it, making it available, and getting people to use it. All the trapping and collaring and chasing is just reactive. And it all costs money: The program's overhead is $600,000 a year, excluding projects like the $325,000 spent on food lockers for Curry Village last winter.

"There are 16 restaurants here, some outdoors, and we generate 2,350 tons of trash annually," says Mark Gallagher, environmental program director for Delaware North Corporation, Yosemite's official concessionaire. "The Park Service generates another 2,000 tons. We've been in an arms race against bear ingenuity here for many, many years."

"I've only invented one thing in my life: the bearproof food locker," says David Graber, an NPS biologist who's worked with bears since 1974. Back then, White Wolf Campground was plagued by bears. "So we had steel boxes welded up, and the local ranger was almost fascist in forcing people to keep food stored except when it was in their mouths," he says. Overnight, White Wolf went from food chaos to zero. "For a week those bears went through the campground, pounding on lockers, literally roaring," says Graber. "Then they disappeared. There was nothing to eat; they had to bail."

"Now bears know they can't get into lockers when they're latched," Seher says. "So they've just shifted strategies. You'll see bears check every locker, because invariably some aren't secured." Other bears opt to watch for a sprint-and-grab opportunity, even keying off the clanging of locker doors.

Yosemite's all-star bears have quite a highlight reel. I hear stories about bears forming cheerleader pyramids to reach food stacked atop restrooms. Mothers getting year-old cubs to tightrope out on fragile limbs. A bear learning to open lockers with its tongue. Another staking out trailhead restrooms to snatch big packs when trekkers lean them outside.

"Bears hide behind lockers and ambush people all the time," says Lisius. "But they usually don't have to. It's easier to find food left out, or lockers that people leave open because they're 15 feet away and don't think a bear will roll right in. We estimate 95 percent of Yosemite visitors comply with food storage regulations, and that's good. But it only takes a one-percent reward to keep pulling bears into a campground."

Another problem arises when some visitors substitute food lockers with what most Americans would consider an equally secure alternative—their car. Unfortunately, bears can open them like a pop-top. In Yosemite Valley, there's a standard break-in pattern. Bears pound out a side window, grab the top of the window frame, and fold out the door's top half like origami. If food's in the trunk, no problem; they just power-mulch their way through the back seat.

One sophisticated bruin took larceny to the next level, learning to open car-door handles with his mouth. "People kept saying they found their car wide open, but nothing was stolen," says Rachel Mazur, a biologist in Kings Canyon (and Yosemite alumnus). "He was going after cars that didn't have any food because it was so easy, he just checked them all."

In the late 1990s, car break-ins were at epidemic levels in Yosemite, with 1,200 incidents in 1998 alone. But now, thanks to relentless efforts to broadcast the food storage message, the smash-and-grab heyday may be over. Despite healthier bear populations and ever more visitors, Yosemite bear incidents are down 80 percent from a decade ago.

Frontcountry bears have the most opportunities, so they're the most food-conditioned. But backcountry bears have a mythic history, too. When veteran wildlife managers talk about problem bears, they reminisce wistfully of the days when a hardworking bruin could really raise some hell. "The smartest bears were probably always the backcountry ones, back before bearproof canisters," notes Steve Thompson, Yosemite's branch chief of wildlife management.

The backcountry food-storage arms race really began in the mid-1970s in Little Yosemite Valley. "It was absolute chaos in there," Graber recalls. "So we put up horizontal steel cables that people could throw their ropes across. By then, we already knew tree-hangs didn't work." The cross-cables had one weakness. During the course of a season, food weight stretched the horizontal wire, creating slack. "This one big bear discovered that he could climb up one tree and shake that cable really hard until any food that wasn't completely secured would be ripped loose," says Graber. "Once he dialed in the technique, he did it everywhere, a total pro."

So the strategies escalated. Rangers developed another system where a cable ran from a clip on one tree, up through a pulley on a cross cable. Before long, Graber witnessed a sow and three cubs deftly working the clips. It was Bear Before Breakfast, perhaps the most legendary problem bear. She ruled Little Yosemite Valley in the '70s and '80s, all the while training a long line of twin and triplet cubs. Veteran rangers still say her name with admiration. "It looked as if she were doing it for sheer fun, because she'd already dropped way more food than she could possibly eat," Graber recalls. The rangers put in food lockers.

Thus foiled, Bear Before Breakfast took to frequenting the Half Dome Trail, bursting from the manzanita and woofing at hikers, causing them to dump load. "Injured visitors kept coming into the clinic claiming they'd been attacked by bears," explains Graber. "So I interviewed a few and discovered that they'd injured themselves running away. One guy tried to get his pack off so fast he dislocated a shoulder."

Elsewhere, bears would climb above hanging food, then take a flying leap, grabbing for groceries on the way down. "We called 'em kamikaze bears," says Graber. "They'd land with this giant thud. If they missed, they'd collect their breath, climb up, and do it again. It was mind-boggling to watch."

Yosemite's bag-hang era came to an end thanks to a young biologist named Bruce Hastings. "He kept losing his food to backcountry bears," says Graber. "So he started carrying PVC pipes with capped ends for food storage." Over the years, these evolved into the modern bear-resistant canisters made from ABS plastic, Lexan, or graphite composite.

"Because of canisters, we don't have much bluff-charging and tree-climbing anymore," Seher says. "But that doesn't mean bears still don't try. It's fascinating to see them discover a camp. They spot the tent and start looking in the trees for bags. If they don't see any, they look for a canister on the ground. Then they'll march right up and tip it over. If it's not latched, they're in." Few bears work on closed canisters for long, although clear Lexan canisters can "drive them nuts," according to one backcountry ranger. "Their most successful strategy is running in, grabbing open canisters, and taking off with the whole thing in their mouth," Seher explains.

"The most foolish stuff we see is when people in the wilderness sleep with their food," says Harold Werner, a wildlife ecologist for Sequoia-Kings Canyon since 1969. "We average about two injuries a year, and the top cause is people sleeping next to their food. One guy had his earlobe sliced in two when he jerked upright and a surprised bear swatted him."

The Yogi Factor

Fortunately, that's about as violent as things get with California's black bears. In fact, a black bear has never killed a human in the state, and injuries, even minor scratches, are exceedingly rare. That's a remarkable record, given the power of your average black bear.

In light of this near-negligible level of violence, one would think that bear management would be straightforward. But bears are powerful symbols, so NPS personnel must manage not only bears, but the emotional baggage we piggyback onto them. People love bears, hate bears, fear bears, bait bears, think they can talk to bears, and worry their Shih Tzu might get eaten by one. Google "Yosemite" and "bear" and you'll find people who think they should be exterminated in the Valley, and folks who are convinced the NPS is secretly murdering them wholesale. And they're all taxpayers.

Consequently, I find Yosemite brass concerned about message control. "I hope your story isn't too humorous," says Thompson. "It's what we call the Yogi Factor. Here's a supposedly lower animal that's outsmarting us, and that's inevitably funny. But the reality is that bears often pay."

That's a good point. Luckily, Yosemite's bears are paying a lot less these days. Back in the 1970s, when garbage-conditioned bears were using mugger tactics, Yosemite killed perhaps 25 to 50 of them annually. Now rangers only put down one to three a year. By contrast, 12 to 20 bears get killed by cars in an average season.

If drought hits, food-raiding incidents rise, but in a good acorn year, even food-conditioned Valley bears abandon dumpsters for oak-covered hills. Incidents have dropped 80 percent since 1998, when drought and funding cuts in the bear program conspired to make for a nightmare summer with 1,600 reported incidents. In 2006, by comparison, there were 330 problem reports.

In wildlife circles, it's decidedly uncool to anthropomorphize bears. "We don't name them anymore, we even try to deemphasize tag colors and numbers," says Lisius. "But it's tough, because we still have to label individuals somehow."

Really, when it comes to bears, analytic detachment is hopeless. I recall a friend, Tim Pote, who was sleeping in the Valley, having this dream about wrestling monsters. He woke up to find his friends standing around with ashen faces. He'd been using his vest as a pillow, and forgotten an empty M&Ms wrapper in a pocket. A bear had grabbed the vest, while Tim had reflexively tried to keep his pillow. The struggle had gone on a while, but the bear never touched him. Next morning they found the shredded vest in nearby bushes. It's impossible not to see the absurd humor in that.

Of course, bear-human conflicts will never truly zero out. There will always be mayhem, a constant feint and parry. The Yogis will always show up in Jellystone, and rangers will always check lockers and fire paintballs. "I tell people that whenever they come to Yosemite they might not get the chance to see a bear," says Seher. "But they'll always get the chance to help save a bear."

In the end, perhaps it's not so unnatural. The food concessions and picnic technology in Yosemite Valley may be distortions of nature, but the principle here is as old as biology. Wild animals regularly steal food. Birds from birds, fish from fish, bears from squirrels, foxes from bears, bears from people. The Miwok and Paiute who once used these valleys undoubtedly lost venison and acorn meal to the ancestors of these black bears.

So if a bear goes after your food, it's nothing personal. Bears don't want you; they want your gorp. And it's a testament to ursine grace and the apparent saintlike patience of Sierra black bears that they don't kill or eat people. After all, if Valley bears thought tourists were tasty, this place would be Jurassic Park.

Despite that unsettling imagery, few thinking people today would wish the bears gone. Perhaps that's because making national parks and other wilderness playgrounds "safe" would demand an admission of just how domesticated we ourselves have become. It's also a measure of how thoroughly urbanized we are that most of us go into the woods assuming we don't have to guard our grub 24/7.

Because Bears Love Beer

On Thursday evening, my ranger companions must remain nameless and not be quoted on policy. So I mentally label them as Green 1 and Green 2 to keep from anthropomorphizing their behavior. We low-ride the F150 on a patrol through Housekeeping Camp, which is not, for readers unfamiliar with Yosemite's rich concession history, a camp for housekeepers. Instead it's a small city of 266 boothlike cabins, basically hard-sided cinderblock bunkers floored in cement and covered by a canvas roof and porch awning. Each austere cubicle has four beds, a ceiling light, and electrical outlets.

In one of those ironic tourism twists, Housekeeping Camp's ghetto ambiance attracts the most ardent fans of any campground in Yosemite. People love it. The densely packed facilities pull a different crowd, a blend of NASCAR tailgate and Burning Man. Circles of lawn chairs sit illuminated by Christmas lights and TVs. There are lots of huge families, a few tattooed posses, and plenty of liquored-up campers.

I'm in mild shock to hear that no bears have dropped by. "Oh, they'll show up," says Green 2. "A lot of these groups can't fit all their food in the one locker they get. And some bring kitchen refrigerators and draft beer machines, which usually doesn't work out so well, because bears love beer."

We continue our prowl, sharking through Upper Pines Campground. Green 1, wearing headphones, starts getting agitated. "Orange 15's here, she's right here." We step out and sweep the area with our halogens. Green 2 holds her light steady, shining it down the asphalt lane toward a distant washroom. A medium-sized bear waddles purposefully through the beam. Harassment ensues, thus showing Orange 15 that human surroundings are not rewarding. Technically, this is called aversive conditioning, but tonight it seems more ritual than anything. "Orange 15's a mature 12-year-old female," says Green 2. "She knows the drill."

Sure enough, after a short gallop into Lower Pines, we're standing at an impasse, the wily sow staring out from a barbed-wire thicket of blackberry. During the standoff, three interpretive rangers walk up, keying off their own radio-telemetry. Curious campers gather, attracted by the flat hats, spotlights, and paintball armaments.

One potbellied guy in a tank top tells us that Yellow 20, Tuesday's quarry, "rolled right in here" that morning and approached bacon-frying campers before being chased off. At 1:30 p.m., she'd reappeared at the edge of a nearby meadow, and spent the afternoon napping, rolling around, and "just doing natural stuff, eating those green pinecones. It was neat. Everybody got great pictures."

Visitor reactions follow several common themes: Some are alarmed that bears are this close. One surfer dude expresses indignation: "You've got bears here? Well, shoot 'em!" The Fresno locals observe with bored looks; they've seen all this before. Everybody else finds it fascinating. It'd totally make their vacation if Orange 15 stuck her face out of the bushes.

Which is more or less what happens. She reappears a hundred yards down the row, making another play for El Dorado at the center of camp. More hollering. Lots of pot-banging. Then one activist neighborhood sends her fleeing. We all tense for another sprint, but Green 1 pulls off the headphones. "Nah. She's past the 50-yard zone. Let her go." The fading signal indicates that Orange 15 has run right through a strip of forest and is moving across Stoneman Meadow, the vast grassland between Royal Arches and Glacier Point.

She's too far off to see, but I can picture her anyway: a frustrated bruin shuffling along with a ponderous side-to-side sway, grazing lazily beneath the moonlit face of Half Dome. And that counts as just one more small- and all-too-brief— victory in the age-old contest between man and bear.

After a half-dozen close (yet peaceful) backcountry encounters, Rocky Mountain Editor Steve Howe thinks bears generally behave better in the woods than he does.

8 Ways to Foil Backcountry Yogis

Carry a canister Store it 100 feet from your tent, and don't wedge it between roots or any place bears can torque the lid.

Keep it close When cooking/eating, leave food within arm's reach.

Stay put If a black bear shows up, defend your camp. He may chase if you run.

Act tough In a group, stand all together. Scream, yell, throw rocks.

Look away All bears consider direct eye contact to be a challenge.

Use pepper spray But expect some black bears back in 30 minutes.

Let it go Once bears possess your food, they may defend it violently.

Report problem bears It'll help keep them alive.