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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

Consequently, I find Yosemite brass concerned about message control. “I hope your story isn’t too humorous,” says Thompson. “It’s what we call the Yogi Factor. Here’s a supposedly lower animal that’s outsmarting us, and that’s inevitably funny. But the reality is that bears often pay.”

That’s a good point. Luckily, Yosemite’s bears are paying a lot less these days. Back in the 1970s, when garbage-conditioned bears were using mugger tactics, Yosemite killed perhaps 25 to 50 of them annually. Now rangers only put down one to three a year. By contrast, 12 to 20 bears get killed by cars in an average season.

If drought hits, food-raiding incidents rise, but in a good acorn year, even food-conditioned Valley bears abandon dumpsters for oak-covered hills. Incidents have dropped 80 percent since 1998, when drought and funding cuts in the bear program conspired to make for a nightmare summer with 1,600 reported incidents. In 2006, by comparison, there were 330 problem reports.

In wildlife circles, it’s decidedly uncool to anthropomorphize bears. “We don’t name them anymore, we even try to deemphasize tag colors and numbers,” says Lisius. “But it’s tough, because we still have to label individuals somehow.”

Really, when it comes to bears, analytic detachment is hopeless. I recall a friend, Tim Pote, who was sleeping in the Valley, having this dream about wrestling monsters. He woke up to find his friends standing around with ashen faces. He’d been using his vest as a pillow, and forgotten an empty M&Ms wrapper in a pocket. A bear had grabbed the vest, while Tim had reflexively tried to keep his pillow. The struggle had gone on a while, but the bear never touched him. Next morning they found the shredded vest in nearby bushes. It’s impossible not to see the absurd humor in that.

Of course, bear-human conflicts will never truly zero out. There will always be mayhem, a constant feint and parry. The Yogis will always show up in Jellystone, and rangers will always check lockers and fire paintballs. “I tell people that whenever they come to Yosemite they might not get the chance to see a bear,” says Seher. “But they’ll always get the chance to help save a bear.”

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