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October 2007

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.
Backpacker_Magazine_YosemiteYosemite, Courtesy of Robert Holmes/California Tourism

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 *** 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.”

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