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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

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.”

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