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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

“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.”

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