Bears... Oh my!

A few weeks ago I got a voicemail from a neighbor that nobody who lives in the mountains wants to hear; especially when you're day three of a three week road trip. 'Morning neighbor, just calling to let you know that a bear broke into your house last night and pillaged your kitchen.' Awesome. Well I didn't say awesome, I think it may have been a string of incoherent profanities from the bed of the truck at 6:30 in the morning.

A little background here, I've worked as a wildlife biologist specializing in black bear behavior in Yosemite National Park and the Eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Not only have I spent a lot of time studying black bear behavior, I've specifically worked on how to negatively condition habituated bears that are coming into contact with humans. Having a bear break into my house is about the equivalent of having a firefighter's house burn down. 


When I tell people this story, their first reaction is 'well thank goodness you weren't in the house, you could have gotten really hurt!' While that could have happened, the more likely scenario is that the bear would have seen me running out of my bedroom armed with my slippers and high-tailed it out of there. Bears are not out to get me, they are out to get my fully stocked refrigerator full of organic kale salad. And by that I mean cookies...and Peanut Butter Panda Puffs. 

I'm talking about the American Black Bear here, Ursus americanus; the smaller and more docile relative of the Grizzly Bear Ursus arctos. American Black Bears can be distinguished from their relatives by their general smaller stature, and more notably the size of their shoulders. Black Bears lack the classic Grizzly Bear shoulder hump. And while I've had people promise me that they saw a Grizzly Bear in Yosemite because it was brown, there are no Grizzly Bears in California anymore.

In fact, only about 2% of the Black Bear population in California are actually black. The other 98% can be shades of blonde, brown, or cinnamon. The American Black Bear is widespread throughout the country and like spending their time foraging for food and have no problem rocketing up a tree when scared. They're omnivores, meaning they eat grasses and berries but also eat grubs and meat. While not particularly active hunters, bears very opportunistic. I've seen plenty of bears scavenging deer carcasses that a mountain lion took down. 

What this translates to for people is that an opportunistic bear who has been habituated to people will probably not be shy about digging around in your pack. Think about it like this. If you had to forage for grasses and grubs all day just to make your daily caloric intake, how happy would you be if you found a backpack full of bacon, cheese, and 3,000 calories of Mountain House Meals? I would personally take the bacon.

Unfortunately, where there are people enjoying the backcountry there are typically bears enjoying that same backcountry too, and it happends to be their home. And while most bears want nothing more than to run away from you, there are those few bears that know what a human is carrying in their backpack. So what can you do? Bear proof canisters are the obvious choice and readily offered by most outdoor sporting shops. Some National Parks even rent them out when you get your backcountry permit. Regardless of where you get them, bear canisters are a proven method of effectively keeping bears out of your food. They are not always 100% effective, I did work with a bear once that figured out that if she pushed canisters into the river and over a waterfall, they would break open at the bottom and the feasting could begin.

Bears are smart, some people say as smart as toddlers. And their sense of smell is said to be five times greater than that of a blood hound. The way that I look at is this. If you're staying in a popular backcountry location where a bear has been known to get into food, you're probably going to get visited by a curious bear. You can be the most vigilant camper and have everything locked away in your canister, but the canister itself isn't smell-proof. They're going to be attracted to the smell even if the food reward is locked away. What I do in this situation is make a 'bear alarm.' Pile pots, pans, rocks, your set of hexes, anything that's loud on top of your bear canister.

If a curious bear stops by to investigate it will knock everything over, most likely scare itself away, and wake you up in the process. If you see a bear, yell at it, throw SMALL rocks at his or her rump or perhaps pound out Metallica's Master of Puppets on your air guitar. They really don't want anything to do with you! 

I hope I haven't painted a picture that all bears are out stalking backpackers and that you should be looking over your shoulder whenever you go out. This is most often not the case. Few people are ever lucky enough to see a bear in the wild.  We are so lucky to even share our space with such great and amusing creatures. I know I feel lucky when I get to stumble upon a wild bear rooting around a log looking for grubs, or watching a mother bear nap lazily with her two cubs in a tree. These are the bears that we need to protect, mostly from ourselves.

There are signs throughout Highway 120 in Yosemite National Park that say 'Red Bear Dead Bear' marking where a car has struck a bear and telling visitors to slow it down while driving the highway. And while speeding is a great danger and lethal to bears, I think feeding a bear is even more deadly. I always tell visitors to repeat this mantra while out backpacking; 'A fed bear, is a dead bear.' Feeding them night not seem as obviously deadly as a speeding car, but the trending behavior of a bear that is habituated to people is not a positive one. The solution is so simple. Store food properly, maintain a healthy respect for such impressive creatures, and let bears remain wild.

Adrianne Ghio
June Lake, California

Adrianne has worked as a wildlife management ranger in Yosemite Valley where she spent many a night stalking the Valley's bears and keeping them out of mischief.

Looking to maybe see a bear and other Yosemite wildlife this summer? Check out our Yosemite Hiking and Backpacking Tours