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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

Yosemite’s bag-hang era came to an end thanks to a young biologist named Bruce Hastings. “He kept losing his food to backcountry bears,” says Graber. “So he started carrying PVC pipes with capped ends for food storage.” Over the years, these evolved into the modern bear-resistant canisters made from ABS plastic, Lexan, or graphite composite.

“Because of canisters, we don’t have much bluff-charging and tree-climbing anymore,” Seher says. “But that doesn’t mean bears still don’t try. It’s fascinating to see them discover a camp. They spot the tent and start looking in the trees for bags. If they don’t see any, they look for a canister on the ground. Then they’ll march right up and tip it over. If it’s not latched, they’re in.” Few bears work on closed canisters for long, although clear Lexan canisters can “drive them nuts,” according to one backcountry ranger. “Their most successful strategy is running in, grabbing open canisters, and taking off with the whole thing in their mouth,” Seher explains.

“The most foolish stuff we see is when people in the wilderness sleep with their food,” says Harold Werner, a wildlife ecologist for Sequoia-Kings Canyon since 1969. “We average about two injuries a year, and the top cause is people sleeping next to their food. One guy had his earlobe sliced in two when he jerked upright and a surprised bear swatted him.”

The Yogi Factor

Fortunately, that’s about as violent as things get with California’s black bears. In fact, a black bear has never killed a human in the state, and injuries, even minor scratches, are exceedingly rare. That’s a remarkable record, given the power of your average black bear.

In light of this near-negligible level of violence, one would think that bear management would be straightforward. But bears are powerful symbols, so NPS personnel must manage not only bears, but the emotional baggage we piggyback onto them. People love bears, hate bears, fear bears, bait bears, think they can talk to bears, and worry their Shih Tzu might get eaten by one. Google “Yosemite” and “bear” and you’ll find people who think they should be exterminated in the Valley, and folks who are convinced the NPS is secretly murdering them wholesale. And they’re all taxpayers.

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