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Staying Wild

Saving the bears at Yosemite National Park

Author Steve Friess Photography Kyle RM Johnson

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The bear destined to become known as Green-7 is both right where we want her and far from where she belongs. After weeks of fleeting sightings by tourists at Yosemite National Park, she’s now seated in a shady meadow, beneath a looming stand of incense cedar trees, munching on chokecherries. From our vantage point about 40 feet away, she seems blissfully unaware of the dragnet forming around her, that there are wildlife rangers mingled with the many campers now gawking at the magnificent creature in their midst.

And so, what happens next is framed as an act of compassion, a rescue mission. A large bronze-colored trap is placed about 30 feet from her, with a package of chokecherries deep inside, at the end opposite the trap door. We wait about a half hour, but the bear doesn’t seem to notice, and a small crowd of visitors begins to collect on a nearby stone bridge. One of Leahy’s rangers, invisible to us on the other side of the meadow, makes a noise that startles the bear from her reverie and, as Leahy hoped, up a tree. As onlookers point and take selfies with what likely will appear to be a brown dot clinging to the bark about 20 feet skyward, two rangers move the bear trap to the base of the tree.

It doesn’t take the bear long—maybe 15 minutes—to tire of hiding above the fray. The food smell in the trap overrides the fear that sent her up, so she creeps down. Once her large, rounded backside is all the way inside the trap, the gate shuts. She screeches and writhes desperately, and although visitors gasp, they understand the necessity of the capture because a ranger was dispatched by Leahy to keep them at bay and explain what was happening.

Leahy and biological science technician Cameron Gray each carry an end of the trap through the parted crowd to their truck, in something akin to an ursine perp walk.

“FYI,” Leahy says into his radio, finally back to normal speaking level after more than an hour of hushed tones, “Valley Wildlife [the name of Leahy’s bear squad] will be unavailable, on a capture.”

“Copy that, Valley Wildlife unavailable,” a voice crackles back.

We drive the bear to Wildlife  Management’s office and jab her with a syringe that’s filled with sedative and attached to a 5-foot pole. Her measurements are taken, blood and hair samples are sent to a lab to test how much human food she has consumed, and her body is thoroughly checked for injuries and abnormalities. A radio transmitter is then attached to one of her ears. If the transmitter indicates she is near developed areas again, or if people spot her, the Yosemite staff will deploy aversive techniques—yelling at her, hitting her with oil pellets from a paintball gun, setting off specialized noisemakers—which escalate depending on her persistence, to scare her back into the wild.

Lest you think that scene is cruel, consider what was once the all-too-common alternative here: The bear gets comfortable around people and gains access to human food that’s tasty, highly caloric, and much easier to attain than berries and insects, which could take up to a day to forage for. So she concentrates all her wiles and muscle on getting more of the former. She breaks into houses to feast in the kitchen, peels open car doors like sardine cans when she catches a whiff of a candy bar in the glove compartment or a stray McDonald’s fry under the seat. Eventually, she may lash out at humans who stand in her way.

A bear that becomes “food- conditioned,” as wildlife biologists call it, is unlikely to be cured. Bears have traveled hundreds of miles to return to a source of human food after being relocated, and they teach their cubs to replicate that behavior. Sooner or later, that bear likely will need to  be euthanized. 

“It’s the worst day you will ever have doing this job,” says Lauren Fanucchi, another Yosemite biological science technician. “We spend a long, long time working with these bears and doing our best to educate the public and doing everything we can to keep them wild. When it crosses that point, and we have to euthanize them, it’s awful. It’s our failure.”

Our bear, in addition to all that tracking hardware, is adorned with a green plastic tag with a bold black “7” protruding from her ear. Green-7. It’s a random designation, a color and number combination that isn’t being used on other tagged bears roaming the park and an easy way for those who see her to tell Wildlife Management which bear  they saw. 

That’s how, forevermore, she’ll be known. But if Leahy and his staff do their jobs well and catch some breaks, no humans will ever be this close to Green-7 again.

This was a rough summer in some parts of North America for human-bear conflict. Most notably, a grizzly bear at Yellowstone National Park killed a 63-year-old visitor in early August, and on my second night at Yosemite, later that month, a man who lives about 20 miles from the park fought off a black bear that attacked him after he startled her while she was eating garbage off his porch. The bear “problem”—measured in property damage, mostly—was so acute this year at Sequoia National Park, about 130 miles south of Yosemite, that Leahy was called down in July to assist the park staff there.

All of that makes it even more remarkable that bear problems inside Yosemite hit an astonishing low in 2015. As of the beginning of October, bears had caused just $4,637 in property damage in 75 incidents—a decrease of 95 percent in the number of incidents and more than 99 percent in the cost of damages since 1998. No human has sustained an injury from a bear at Yosemite since 2011, a historically unrivaled streak.

The day before we trap Green-7, Leahy provides a crash course in the irresponsible history of human-bear interaction at Yosemite and other parks. In the early 20th century, he tells me, visitors to the parks could sit on bleachers around massive pits and watch bears feed on human garbage. That ended in the early 1940s because of—surprise—human injuries from bear encounters, but bears continued to have easy access to garbage dumps all the way into the 1970s. In 1971, a record 48 bears were killed at Yosemite—a distressingly high percentage of the 350 to 500 that’s generally seen as the healthy population for the park—because of conflicts with people and persistent property damage.

The property damage problem only grew worse after the park installed early, ineffective prototypes of bear-proof dumpsters to replace open ones in the 1980s; damage exceeded $100,000 in every year during the 1990s—in 1998, it peaked at $659,569, from 1,584 incidents—and it began to give Yosemite a reputation as a dangerous place to visit. Thus, during the 1990s, the Yosemite Conservancy, a nonprofit group that provides grants for park projects, began spending what would amount to more than $4 million on building and installing roughly 2,000 steel bear lockers—which people can easily open but bears can’t—for campers to store their food in.

“We all were very concerned about somebody getting hurt,” says Yosemite Conservancy president Frank Dean, who was a park ranger in the 1990s. “And we were concerned about the bears, too, of course. This is the mandate of the Parks Service: to manage the wildlife in the wild.”

Wildlife biologists have long known how to curb the problem: prevent black bears from obtaining human food. “Once they get a taste, the drive to get into food is beyond anything we can really comprehend,” Leahy says. “It can escalate and get worse and worse until the bears start breaking into houses and into cars or hurt people.” (Remarkably, in recorded history, no black bear has ever killed a person in California. Grizzlies, a more ferocious species, are no longer present in California, despite appearing on the state flag.)

The increasing problem also drew the attention of the United States Congress, which in 1999 began providing $500,000 a year for bear management at Yosemite, which draws 4 million visitors a year. With that money, which continues to flow today, the park added more bear- management staff and formed the Yosemite National Park Bear Council. At today’s Yosemite, it is impossible to be unaware that feeding bears is both forbidden and a terrible idea. An electronic billboard that reads “SAVE  YOSEMITE BEARS” greets motorists, who receive pamphlets after paying to enter. Messaging is everywhere, from billboards outside campgrounds to trash receptacles to forms signed by campers acknowledging that they’re aware of the bear rules. Paper cups at concessions shops sport a comic strip showing an oblivious family taking a group photo while a bear is feasting on their improperly stored food.

The results have been impressive. Of the bears that forage for human-derived food in Yosemite, only about 13 percent now have diets that contain human food—down from 35 percent between 1971 and 1998, according to a study of bone and hair samples published by wildlife ecologist Jack Hopkins of the University of California at San Diego. “That indicates a successful, proactive human-bear management program,” Hopkins says. “There’s no question that they’ve done really well implementing management efforts since 1999, when the government began funding their program.”

When I visit, Leahy and his team of around 15 rangers are only a couple of weeks past having had to euthanize their second bear in 2015. That was Blue-54, a 275-pound male that first appeared in a developed area of the park in 2010. Wildlife Management trapped him, tagged him, chased him away, and didn’t see him again for several years. He was caught again and fitted with a GPS collar, which made him one of roughly 10 bears that were on the radar—as in, every four hours their coordinates are transmitted and plotted on a map that shows the zigzag of their movements. Less than a year later, the bear broke into cars in one of the campgrounds, signaling an increasing boldness. Again, Leahy’s team scared him off—until this past spring, when he returned to break into more cars searching for food. Twice in May, the bear was relocated more than 30 miles into the forest. One morning in June,  he returned and ripped the door off a properly latched U-Haul trailer.

“At that point, we’re like, ‘OK, we’ll try a last-ditch effort,’ and scheduled crew to be on 24/7,” Leahy says. “For a week, somebody on our team is with the bear the whole time trying to scare him back into the wild. We did 28 negative conditioning events that week.” Eventually, Leahy wrote a memo to the park superintendent outlining the efforts made to save the animal and asking for permission to kill it. “We put in more effort than most places would have the time or money or care to do,” he says. “But that’s our job.”

Animal-rights groups, of course, object to euthanizing bears for behavior caused by human fecklessness, but it is notable that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals spokeswoman Stephanie Bell praises the extensive efforts at negative conditioning as “very effective at saving bear lives.” However, some bear-management experts, including Hopkins, believe the cost in time and resources of focusing on individual bears that aren’t likely to be rehabilitated anyway is wasteful. “Hazing bears is often a big show,” he says. “Moving bears around and putting collars on them is not effective. It doesn’t change their behavior.”

Nevertheless, Leahy’s mandate is to try to save these bears—and he is haunted by the failures. On a  corkboard above his desk in the cluttered trailer where his staff works are the tags taken from some of the bears he has had to euthanize after unsuccessful efforts to rehabituate them into the wild. Purple-33 was his first, back in 2005, when he was an entry-level field biologist at Sequoia. “That bear was maybe 15 months old,” he recalls, “and somebody started hand-feeding her, so the bear started approaching lots of people. It culminated in me trying to catch the bear to move it. She came right up to my car, started crawling in my driver’s side window. I held my breath and blasted her with bear spray and she ran off. We came back in the morning, and she was in our trap. So we killed it. You can’t have bears crawling into people’s cars.”

Those moments—and the tags that remind him of them—are what drives the 33-year-old, who spent his youth working, hunting, and frolicking near his family’s home in the rural, western New York town of Randolph. It’s so serious to him that he bristles when tourists make jokes about bears. “I can’t tell you how many times we get Yogi Bear comments,” he says. “It’s not funny to us. This is life or death for these bears.” When I ask in jest whether untagged bears make fun of the ones with collars and antennae, he curtly replies, “We don’t anthropomorphize bears. They’re not people.”

Green-7 lies prone and unconscious on a green tarp on the paved driveway of the Wildlife Management office, a team of five staffers gathered behind her for a group photo that none of them will be permitted to post on social media. It’s a bad image, even if the bear winds up living a good, long life thanks to the intervention.

The celebratory atmosphere is understandable, though. It was a particularly difficult day at Yosemite, one in which a pair of sleeping teens were killed when a massive tree branch fell on their tent, and a campground was shut down because squirrels there tested positive for plague. “This,” Leahy says, “is the best thing that’s happened in this park all day.”

Two weeks later, Leahy is more optimistic about Green-7 than he was when we were in the midst of the capture. When the bear was caught, he was convinced it must have been fed to be so comfortable in such close proximity to people. But while the bear’s radio transmitter has shown her near the campgrounds again, she hasn’t come in and hasn’t made any aggressive efforts to obtain human food. The worst thing that happened, he says, is that she caused a small traffic jam by crossing a road, but “she ran away when she saw us. Being captured was obviously a very negative experience for her. So that’s good.”

Out of respect for the rangers at Yosemite National Park, Ann Arbor, Michigan–based journalist Steve Friess will refrain from making any “smarter than the average reporter” jokes here.

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