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Tech Is Saving Bears In Yosemite, But Speeding Cars Are Still Killing Them

Mar 21, 2017

People love seeing black bears when they visit places like Yosemite National Park. They’re powerful creatures that can be docile or ferocious depending on the encounter. In such a highly visited place incidents with bears are bound to happen, and as FM89’s Ezra David Romero reports the park has come up with a new plan to keep bears and people safe.

 

It’s Fresno State student Quiang Chang’s fifth time to Yosemite National Park. He and his friends are walking along the Lower Yosemite Falls Trail. He still hasn’t seen a bear yet, but if he does he says he has a plan.

"Yogi and Boo-Boo are not what these bears are." - Ryan Leahy, NPS
Yosemite Falls
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

“If they appear I would love to see them,” says Chang. “I probably would just quietly observe them and take a picture.”

That’s exactly what park officials want people to do. To keep a healthy distance away from them. But training the public to think this way hasn’t been easy says NPS Spokesman Scott Gediman. In fact in 1998 there were almost 1,600 human encounters with bears where people were injured or property was damaged. Today there’s less than 100 a year thanks to the Keep Bears Wild program launched almost two decades ago. They still want to get that number lower.

 

“It was not atypical to have three or four vehicles broken into every night,” says Gediman. “We wanted to put the responsibility on park visitors to store their food properly.”

 

Gediman says there were so many encounters with bears because in the park's early history the rangers managed bears very differently from today. There were bear feeding areas and dumps in the park where people watched bears devour piles of trash and food. NPS Wildlife Biologist Ryan Leahy runs the bear program in Yosemite.

A cub in Yosemite National Park
Credit NPS

“Bleachers were even set up,” say NPS Wildlife Biologist Ryan Leahy, he runs the bear program in the park. “Meanwhile during this whole thing bear conflict was starting to occur outside of these feeding shows. You’re starting to have habituating bears, bears that have lost their natural fear.”

He says all that human interaction resulted in having to kill bears in the name of public safety and it taught bears to gorge on chips and trash. In turn they taught their cubs to do the same, so Leahy says decades later bears still crave human food. He says managing the 300-500 bears today in the park is very different, thanks to technology.

 

Bear boxes are in use all across Yosemite National Park.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

It all started with the bear box. That’s a metal box with a door and latch where you can store food and smelly products like deodorant.

"You're talking about 10 percent of our bears potentially being hit by vehicles each year." - Ryan Leahy, NPS

“You can see this plate right here prevents a bear from from getting its hand in there, but your fingers are thin enough that you can,” say Leahy.

The first few renditions of the bear box didn’t work well, but now a new design with a push from below type lever is in use all across the park.

 

Bears are tracked using telemetry collars as well GPS collars in Yosemite National Park.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

His team also tracks bears using GPS collars and if one gets too close to people they can scare it away, catch it in a bear trap or relocate the animal. But, he says it wasn’t always so easy to track bears. They use radio telemetry collars and tags on them. That’s where they collar them and then can hear a beeping sound on a radio unit when close to one.

 

“So we’re using these radio telemetry devices to track those bears in the night before they enter these developments,” says Leahy.

 

All this technology has also helped reduce the number of human encounters with bears. Now they’re using advances in technology to bring those numbers down even further. Over the last year Leahy’s been working on a pilot project where he can track the bears that live in the park in real time on an iPad or computer using frequencies from the GPS collared animals.

 

“Yeah it looks like all the bears have gone into their dens,” says Leahy. “Apparently that last storm pushed them in.”

 

He can now immediately tell if a bear is getting too close to say a camping area. The data he’s retrieved from this program points to another trend. Bears are being hit by cars and speeding is now the biggest threat to bears here.  He says about 30 were hit last year and 10 died.  

 

“You’re talking about 10 percent of our bears potentially being hit by vehicles each year,” says Leahy. “Just slowing down a little bit will give you that stopping distance required to prevent a collision.”

 

The bear education site goes live in early April, but rangers are already using the data collected.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

In response his team has created an interactive map-based website where people can see the general areas where bears are hit the most and where bears live. It's also a place where park visitors can learn all about how to be safe if a bear is around.

 

“Since you were a little kid you get driven into Yogi and Boo-Boo,” Leahy says. “Yogi and Boo-Boo is not what these bears are. So what we want to do with this website in a positive way before they get here is engage people. Hey, here is the real story about black bears in Yosemite National Park.”

The website goes live in early April and Leahy hopes the educational site means fewer midnight calls with a dented car and either a dead or wounded bear.