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Bears of Yosemite (1943) by M. E. Beatty

Bear and cub icon


Some twenty years ago visitors to Yosemite Valley considered themselves fortunate to get even a fleeting glimpse of a bear, and they would commonly arouse all their neighbors so that they too might enjoy the experience.

With the gradual increase in human visitors came a corresponding increase in the number of bears attracted by the campers’ foodstuffs and by enlarged garbage pits. Soon bears started raiding camps for food, and after many visitor complaints, the National Park Service began a bear feeding program, the food consisting mainly of garbage scraps. The feeding area was located as far down valley as possible in order to protect the campers and lodge guests in the upper end of the valley. The result was that bears would remain throughout the day in the vicinity of the feeding pits which, due to the geography of the valley area, could not be located any great distance away from the main highways. The bears soon

Black Bear
turned beggars, stopping cars, and lining the roadside in hopes of receiving some tid-bits.

To the visitor, the situation seemed ideal. Here was a chance to see bears and to feed them. Few appreciated that these bears were actually wild animals, with the ability to inflict serious damage to those coming too close to them. Consequently, accidents became more frequent until finally more than sixty hospital cases were recorded during one season. The late Will Rogers after a visit to Yosemite remarked, “They warn you not to feed the bears, but they have a hospital for those that do.”

The Service, in an attempt to reduce the number of accidents and to restore normal conditions then issued a new regulation prohibiting the visitor from feeding, teasing, or molesting the bears. Even this failed entirely to solve the problem.

From the biological standpoint, nature was badly out of balance. The bears were no longer accustomed to shifting for themselves. The valley area was far too small to supply sufficient natural food for such a large bear population, and so the animals continued to raid camps and garbage cans and to hold up cars. Accidents from bear injuries were still too high.

The policy under which our parks operate in respect to wildlife is to keep conditions as nearly natural as possible. The artificial feedings of bears was therefore not the solution to the problem.

“Bear show” feeding in Yosemite Valley was discontinued in September 1940, and some of the excess bear population was removed in order to effect more natural conditions. A total of 45 bears were trapped during the fall, and moved to outlying areas above the valley rim. This still left too many bears for an area that would hardly supply normal food for more than three or four individuals. So in 1941 and 1942, additional bears were removed; particularly, those individuals that insisted on begging food along highways or were confirmed raiders of camps.

Results in general have proven most encouraging, and accidents from bears have dropped to only a few cases a season. Many of the bears now seek natural food, and a more nearly natural balance has been established. It is hoped that through a close adherence to this policy, the bear situation will continue to show a steady improvement.

Where To See Bears

With the removal of the surplus bear population from the valley, visitors commonly ask, “Where are the bears? And where can we go to see them?” This is a most difficult question to answer as bears seldom remain at one fixed spot for any great length of time.

They are often encountered unexpectedly along the roads and trails, in the old apple orchards, or in the campgrounds. Bears on trails faithfully follow every zig and zag, and the hiker had best step off the trail, and give up the right-of-way unless he wishes to outbluff the bear. Campers usually have no difficulty seeing bears, particularly, if they have such odorous foods as ham or bacon in their larders. Bears show a decided preference for salty and greasy foods, and for any kind of sweets, which their keen sense of smell enables them to easily locate. Foodstuffs should, therefore, be protected by caching in a box or sack and suspending with a rope between two trees, or from a horizontal limb. Caution should be observed to make sure the food supply is high enough above the ground so that a bear will be unable to reach it, and far enough away from the tree trunk that the bear can’t reach it by climbing. It is certainly not advisable to place your slab of bacon under the mattress of a cot, as one lady visitor is reported to have done. Needless to say, she was rudely rolled off her cot by a bear during the middle of the night, and suffered both a loss of dignity and a slab of bacon. Bears may break into cars in search of food they can smell.

Raiding bears can usually be frightened away by loud noises and flashlight beams. They will not intentionally attack a human unless both happen to be on opposite ends of a slab of bacon. It should be remembered that a bear can both outrun and outclimb a human, and that loss of food is preferable to serious injuries that might be sustained through too close proximity.

With the discontinuance of “bear shows” and the removal of a large number of bears from the valley floor, visitors will undoubtedly have more difficulty in seeing bears. At times, it is possible for the rangers and naturalists to advise visitors as to location where bears have been recently observed. It is believed that the visitor will get a far greater thrill out of seeing a bear in natural surroundings than in seeing dozens of bears feeding on garbage under artificial surroundings.

Next: ReferencesContentsPrevious: Sierra Nevada Black Bear

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Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management