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New Study Will Track Bears In Yosemite High Country

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A Yosemite bear in the woods. New GPS collars will allow researchers to determine not only if they do but exactly where | Photo: schlissm/Flickr/Creative Commons License

It would be hard to think of a place where black bears have been more closely studied than Yosemite Valley. With millions of human beings crowding into still-intact bear habitat every year, keeping tabs on the effects on wild bears of everything from vehicle traffic to improperly discarded candy wrappers has become crucial.

But outside the seven square miles of Yosemite Valley, in the other 1,182 square miles of Yosemite National Park, not as much is known about the habits of black bears. In part, that's because the old-school radio collars the Valley's black bears wear are hard to track once the bruins head for the high country.

But with help from donors recruited by the non-profit Yosemite Conservancy, that's about to change. Thanks to the Conservancy, the National Park Service will be spending $70,000 on far more trackable GPS collars for the bears, which will give wildlife managers far better information on where bears do go in the backcountry, and what they do when they get there.

"This project will expand the park's understanding of Yosemite's black bear population, and help to keep bears wild and visitors safe," said Yosemite National Park Superintendent Don Neubacher. "Yosemite Conservancy funding helps us to achieve our bear management goals of keeping healthy natural populations of black bears as independent from human influence as possible."

While the vast majority of human development in the park is concentrated in Yosemite Valley, the human influence can be seen throughout the park, from the large campgrounds along route 120 to remote backpacking campsites where generations of bears have learned to raid hikers' food stores.

Historically, Yosemite has been the site of some colossally bad bear management practices. Until the early 1970s, it was common for rangers to leave food out in some places so that tourists could take photos, and the valley's trash dumps were common black bear gathering places. Two decades ago the park's 300-odd bears broke into as many as 600 cars a year looking for treats.

As Paul Rogers reported this month in the San Jose Mercury News, conflicts between bears and Yosemite visitors have dropped significantly over the last decade. That's in part due to an investment in bear-proof trash cans and food storage, with 2,000 food lockers throughout the Park funded in part by the Conservancy.

It's also in part because the National Park Service has aggressively educated tourists about the danger their careless behavior poses to bears.

That education hasn't always come easy. As one possibly apocryphal but nonetheless telling account posted in 2006 on Slashdot had it, physical measures to foil bears often foiled tourists as well:

Back in the 1980s, Yosemite National Park was having a serious problem with bears: They would wander into campgrounds and break into the garbage bins. This put both bears and people at risk. So the Park Service started installing armored garbage cans that were tricky to open -- you had to swing a latch, align two bits of handle, that sort of thing. But it turns out it's actually quite tricky to get the design of these cans just right. Make it too complex and people can't get them open to put away their garbage in the first place. Said one park ranger, "There is considerable overlap between the intelligence of the smartest bears and the dumbest tourists."

You just gotta love that ranger quote.

Evidently, us humans have started to catch up to the bears. Visitors are carefully warned that even leaving a tub of toothpaste in your glovebox is an invitation to disaster. Backpackers are required to use bear-proof food canisters rather than the old-school "bear-bagging" food storage technique. (I can personally attest that black bears well outside of Yosemite Valley in Lyell Canyon had bested bear-bagging techniques as early as 1992. Fortunately, they left us the coffee to fortify us for our 14-mile hike to the trailhead.)

As a happy result of the National Park Service's campaign, bear incidents in Yosemite Valley are way down. That's good news for tourists and their car rental agencies. It's better news for the bears: those bears that get used to raiding our food must often be euthanized.

Having more information on bear activities outside the valley can only help rangers and others keep human food sources away from the animals, whether within the park or in gateway communities. And as the older generations of bears with food-raiding skills die off without passing their unhelpful tool kits on to the next generations, Yosemite's bears will likely get wilder and wilder.

More data on bear habits outside the valley may also help manage other bear interaction issues, such as the ever-present threat of speeding tourist vehicles hitting bears. There were 28 such collisions reported in the Park in 2010 alone, a substantial percentage of the Park's entire bear population.

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"Red bear" sign placed at the site of a bear fatality on the Tioga Road | Photo: Chris Clarke

"We're committed to helping the park protect Yosemite's wildlife so future generations can experience thrills like seeing a black bear ambling through a valley meadow," said Yosemite Conservancy President Mike Tollefson. "Those are memories that last a lifetime and encourage people to be stewards of the park."

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