Updated 2:12 pm, Saturday, April 8, 2017
A new website lays bare a conflict between motor cars and bears in Yosemite.
Judging by the site, called Keep Bears Wild, the automobiles are winning.
Vehicles struck 28 bears in Yosemite in 2016, according to the site. The bear-car encounters, which peaked in 2015 with 38, have been rising since 1995, when the National Park Service first began keeping records.
“We’re not sure why” there has been an increase, said Ryan Leahy, a wildlife biologist for the Yosemite National Park bear program. “It could be because vehicle technology allows cars to travel more rapidly on the roadways” and “sometimes vegetation encroaches on the roadway and impedes motorists’ line of sight.”
Leahy said 10 of the bears hit last year were killed, but the death toll is probably higher given that the powerful bruins often drag themselves off the road after being hit and can sometimes travel long distances before succumbing to their wounds.
The information is all on the website, which features the National Park Service’s first online bear tracker at http://keepbearswild.org/bear-tracker. The tracking site, which is expected to be more lively in a few weeks after hibernation, follows 20 or so bears affixed with GPS collars. The data are delayed a day on the public site to protect hibernating or injured bears.
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The site “is an important way to raise awareness, appreciation and respect for Yosemite’s beloved black bears,” said Yosemite Superintendent Chip Jenkins. “Our message is simple: Everyone can keep bears wild by driving slowly, storing food properly and staying at a safe distance when you see them.”
It is all part of a public information campaign started in 1998 called Keep Bears Wild. The burly omnivores were involved in 1,584 aggressive incidents that year, including car and cabin break-ins, the snatching of tourist lunches and garbage raids.
American black bears, known scientifically as Ursus americanus, are not normally aggressive toward humans — no one has been killed by one in California in more than a century — but they can eat 20,000 calories a day when they are bulking up for winter hibernation.
Between 300 and 500 bears live in Yosemite, and thanks to carelessness and, in some cases, purposeful feeding, they have clearly developed a taste for people food. As a result, the bears, who normally sleep at night, began lumbering around Yosemite Valley after dark, prompting a nightly chorus of banging pans, flash grenades and yelling among campers.
At times in the 1990s, 10 to 15 cars would be ransacked in a night. In 2000, bears broke into more than 300 cars, smashing windows, clawing doors open and ransacking the interiors.
In an effort to break the bears of their junk food habit, the nonprofit Yosemite Conservancy provided $1.2 million for bear management, including the purchase of bear-proof storage lockers at campgrounds, parking lots and trailheads. About $70,000 was spent to outfit problem bears with GPS collars that allow rangers to track their whereabouts.
The effort, now called the Yosemite Human-Bear Management Program, has worked. The number of black bear incidents dropped to 38 in 2016, but the new tracking system has since revealed the disturbing motor vehicle trend.
“Time after time, year after year, we are seeing bears hit in the same locations,” said Leahy, who has pinpointed 21 hot spots for bear collisions, including the location on Tioga Road where three cubs were orphaned after their mother was hit and killed last year. The cubs were raised at the Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care Center and are hibernating in a den in Yosemite
What’s really astonishing, though, is how many times bears actually cross roads, he said.
“We had one bear cross a road over 100 times in a week, including eight times in a 24-hour period,” he said of a bear that dodged cars on Highway 120 at Tioga Road. “It looks like we have a lot of bear collisions, but a lot of these bears are also crossing roads successfully very often.”
Frank Dean, the president of the Yosemite Conservancy, said the website is a tool that the public can use to help protect bears.
“This new website is a portal for the public to track the bears in the park, but it also gives researchers the tools to determine where these bears go and how far,” Dean said.
An educational film about black bears produced by the Yosemite Conservancy can be seen here: www.yosemiteconservancy.org/yosemite-nature-notes-black-bears