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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

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.

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