On a beautiful, clear night about 20 years ago at our campsite at 9,800 feet above sea level in the Yosemite high country, my friends and I were awakened by a series of crashes and low snuffling grunts. There were bears in our food. We'd taken what we thought to be adequate precautions. We'd chosen the campsite in part because there was a picture-perfect bear-bagging tree nearby, one with a stout horizontal limb about 30 feet off the ground.
But by 1993 or so, black bears in the Lyell Canyon area had apparently read the same backpacking books we had. They made short work of our sophisticated food security system, consisting of two stuff sacks counterbalanced at either and of a rope slung over that limb, well out of reach of the tallest bear -- or so we thought.
At least they left us the coffee, which was all we had to sustain us on the fourteen-mile hike out to the hamburger stand at Tuolumne Meadows. We hiked with a greater appreciation of the importance of keeping black bears away from human food sources. And this month, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife wants you to redouble your efforts to bear-proof your food supply and your trash, whether you're backpacking or sitting in your bungalow.
This month is when black bears generally emerge from hibernation, and as they haven't eaten since last fall, they wake up hungry. In May, a too-large percentage California's estimated 30,000 black bears turn to us as a food source, breaking into cars, trash cans, and even kitchens to secure those all-important calories.
As the saying goes, "a fed bear is a dead bear." Bears that get too used to human presence become dangerous to people, and on occasion to themselves. Though black bears are usually non-aggressive and even shy, those who are habituated to people can lose that shyness. Once they're not nervous around us, they can become nuisance bears, often getting injured in the dangerous city or being killed by wildlife managers to prevent injury to others.
Unsecured food provides a powerful incentive for bears to get used to being around us. Besides, our junk food is even less healthy for the bears than it is for us: the critters do far better on a natural diet of nuts and berries, plant roots, insects, small animals, and dead things.
Which means the burden is on us to make sure we develop habits that don't offer bears undue temptation.
"Human-bear conflicts are largely the fault of humans. People need to adjust their behavior when they live and recreate in bear country," said Jesse Garcia, CDFW's Bear Program Manager. "It is absolutely necessary to secure food and trash receptacles to avoid attracting bears. Campers and residents can prevent expensive property damage, safeguard people from injury and save the lives of bears by exercising a little common sense. Bears that become habituated to humans or conditioned to eating our food and trash often have to be killed."
That's why CDFW has declared May "Be Bear Aware" month, and using the event to promote its tips for living bear-safe at home or on the trail.
Some of those tips you might not have thought of on your own. For instance, if you have a fruit tree in bear country, the CDFW recommends you pick all the fruit as soon as it's ripe and store it safely indoors, or else spring for an electric fence for your orchard.
The two most important tips are those that would seem to be no-brainers for most bear-aware Californians. First off, you need to get some bear-proof trash containers if you live in bear country. (The CDFW offers this link to one provider.)
Secondly, do not feed the bears. Ever. Even if they're cute. As this all-too-typical local news report from the Tahoe Daily Tribune says, tourists are often the biggest violators of this rule, and as soon as someone in the know educates them, they leave and are replaced by new tourists.
"Local wildlife agencies," writes the Daily Tribune's Tom Lotshaw, "have heard reports of vacationers having cocktail parties and throwing food off the deck to bears below."
It should go without saying, but apparently it can't go without saying: don't do that.
You can read a very helpful list of things you should do to help keep bears safe, shy, and wild on the CDFW blog.