Great Gray Owl
If you wake to a series of deep, rhythmic “whoos,” it’s probably this 2.5-pound owl, Yosemite’s largest. It perches in the broken tops of tall trees near open meadows. The endangered owl is distinguished by a white mustache (fuzzy feathers beneath the beak) and black bow tie (dark chin feathers). It averages 27 inches tall with a massive 60-inch wingspan. Concentric circles ring its yellow eyes. Facial discs (called ruffs) focus sound to its ears—it can hear prey burrowing beneath two feet of snow. And to get that concealed rodent? The owl can crash through a snowpack that would support a 180-pound hiker.
Yosemite’s notoriously cunning black bears don’t stop thieving in the winter. Even if snow covers the Badger Pass parking lot, you still need to bearproof your car. Though they’re not as active during the winter months, many black bears skip hibernation if they can continue to feast on Snickers and fast-food fries from your floorboard. “Your car is just a can, and their claws are the can opener,” says Yosemite Park Ranger Keri Cobb. “I’ve seen them punch out windows just to get a tube of toothpaste. It happens every month of the year.” Store all food in a locker at the trailhead and use a canister on the trail. Food is anything with a scent, including canned goods, trash, and toiletries. Be extra-vigilant if you own a minivan. These cars represented 29 percent of the 908 vehicles ravaged by bears between 2001 and 2007, though they made up just seven percent of all the cars in the park.
Traffic congestion in Yosemite Valley has become such a concern–hour-long entrance lines are common–that officials are considering banning private cars. Visitors registered at a hotel or campground would be allowed to enter, while others would use a free shuttle bus (or bicycles). According to a recent survey, 84 percent of visitors listed sightseeing or taking a scenic drive as their only activity. Discuss: Is this regulation good for the park, even if it causes a drop in overall visitation?