Tuesday, September 30, 2008

JMT - Bears

The next topic that we wanted to cover for the benefit of future JMT hikers is bear safety. If you’re a regular reader of our blog, you may recall that we had a run-in with a bear in the San Gorgonio Wilderness back in May, and then of course, in Yosemite, a bear ripped our car open. So we have some experience dealing with California bears, and hope that others can learn from our mishaps.

When we arrived in Yosemite, we knew that bears there are notorious for bad behavior, and we were repeatedly warned about how to protect ourselves and our property. The park entrance station, the park newspaper, and signs in the campgrounds all told us that when we parked overnight, we needed to remove everything from our car that had any smell – all food and toiletries had to go.

When we got our wilderness permit, the ranger at the wilderness station reiterated the warning, saying that we needed to make sure that we transferred anything with a taste into the bear-proof lockers in the trailhead parking lots. She used the same examples – food, toothpaste, lotions, deodorant, baby wipes, etc. At the desk in the wilderness office, they showed a photo of a car that a bear had broken into, with its door frame bent down. We asked about our cooler, which was empty, and the ranger said we should be OK to leave it in the car if we cleaned it out well and made sure it wasn’t visible. She explained that bears don’t just smell for food – they also look into cars, and if they see something like a cooler that looks like a food source, they may break in even if they can’t smell anything.

We spent much of the rest of the day clearing out our car lest it suffer the fate of the car in the photo. We consolidated all of our smelly items into a couple of bins. We noticed that some of our blankets smelled from being packed in a bin near toiletries, so we laundered those. We washed out our empty cooler with soap and water. When we felt like we’d done everything we could to make our car unattractive to a bear, we parked it in the overnight parking lot. After opening and closing several lockers, we found an empty locker and put our smelly stuff inside. We were uncomfortable leaving some of our stuff, including dishes and cookware that would be expensive to replace, in a locker that was bear-proof but hardly people-proof, but we did it anyway. We also noticed that visitors had locked several of the lockers, despite warnings that the lockers were to be shared and locks would be cut off.

After transferring our food and toiletries to the locker, we still had duffel bags of clothing and other gear in the car – after all, we’ve been living out of our car. None of this stuff seemed like it would be interesting to a bear, but to be extra-safe, we put a bed sheet over everything, to reduce the appearance of clutter.

On the way to the trailhead the next morning, we stopped at our car to drop off a few things that we wouldn’t be carrying them with us on our hike. When we got to our car, a park vehicle was already there, and two park officials were writing up an incident report. Despite all our hard work the previous day, our car had been attacked by a bear! The door frame was bent down at a 45-degree angle, and the window was sitting in shards on the ground. Interestingly, the interior of the car was hardly disrupted – the sheet that we’d used to cover our bags was tossed aside, and a duffel bag was moved to the front seat from the back of the car. The cooler was moved, too. But the bear didn’t open any bags or make any other mess. It looked like a very quick job – break in, sniff around for food for a minute or two, and leave to try his luck on another car.

The male official did most of the talking, and he said we were lucky that he wasn’t a ranger. He pointed at the stuff in the back of our car – the duffel bags, bins, and cooler that were now plainly visible, given that the bear had removed the bed sheet that had been covering them – and said that if he was a ranger, he would have impounded our car and we would have been fined thousands of dollars. We didn’t understand what we had done wrong, given that we’d followed all the regulations and then some, but we were in such a state of shock that we were actually a bit grateful – at least the official wasn’t going to fine us! The officials told us that we should take our car to the Yosemite Valley garage, where they could tape or board up our door for us, and then we could head out on our trip. They didn’t ask us any questions about what we had done to bear-proof our car; they just completed writing up their incident report and gave us a report number and a phone number that we could call.

We weren’t comfortable with leaving our car in the parking lot with just tape over the door, but we headed over to the garage anyway. The staff turned out to be extremely friendly and helped us find a towing company and a body shop that could fix up our door for us while we hiked. After that, we settled in to wait for the tow truck to arrive.

The incident report card that the official had provided indicated that we should call the park office to complete our report. Since he hadn’t asked us any questions about the bear-proofing we had done, we felt it was our responsibility to call the office to let them know the details of what had happened. They would probably want to know exactly what was in our car and what state of organization it was in, so that they could understand the behavioral patterns of this particular bear and reduce the likelihood of negative bear/people interactions in the future.

So while we were waiting for the tow truck to arrive, Brian called the office. The person who answered the phone was the same park official who had taken the report. Brian started a conversation, and after a few minutes, it became clear that the official thought the report was complete – there was nothing more that would be useful for the park service to know. The official said once, “Well, at least you’ve learned a lesson.” When he repeated that comment a second time, Brian asked, “What lesson were we supposed to learn?” The official said that we couldn’t leave anything at all in our car. When Brian pointed out that the park guidelines were not consistent with this, explicitly stating that park visitors should remove items with a smell from their cars, the official said, “Those people who write the guidelines, they don’t know the bears like I do.”

Later in the conversation, Brian asked what would be done about this particular bear. After all, it was pretty clearly a problem bear, breaking into a car without provocation. Surely, the park service would do something to deter this bear from attacking cars in the future. The official said, “The bear’s not the problem. You’re the problem.” He said that the bears were in Yosemite first, before people, and we were encroaching on their territory. The bear was just being a bear, and after all, we’d left all that stuff in the car to entice it.

So let’s see… Park officials blame all negative bear/people encounters on the people – the bears are immune from any responsibility. Park officials display no interest in asking questions to gather information about the details of a particular bear/people encounter that might be useful to prevent future such encounters – after all, the people are always at fault, so there’s nothing more to learn. The park’s guidelines – published in the park newspaper, at the entrance stations, and at campgrounds, and espoused by rangers – aren’t written by people who know the bears, and are woefully inadequate to protect people and their property from the bears.

After our car was on its way to the body shop, we headed back to the wilderness office to talk to a ranger, to try to square the park official’s admonition that we could have nothing in our car with the wilderness office’s guidance that we just remove items with smell and taste. The ranger who had issued our permit the previous day wasn’t there, so we talked to another ranger. He admitted that yes, our car would have been safer if it had been completely empty, but unfortunately, the park doesn’t have enough bear lockers in the parking lots to support such a policy, and the lockers aren’t secure from theft, so recommending that cars be completely emptied would just trade a bear problem for a theft problem. Besides, he said, even completely emptying a car might not be enough. A bear may break into a Honda CR-V once and get some tasty food out of it and decide that CR-Vs are yummy food sources, so it may break into a few more CR-Vs in the hope of getting more food. Yes, bears are apparently that smart – they can recognize the make and model of a car! Or maybe a bear learns that CR-Vs are relatively easy to break into, and that encourages future CR-V break-ins. Or a bear may see color as a sign – the bear breaks into a green vehicle and gets some food, and then continues to break into other green vehicles, without any provocation. So parking an empty car overnight is better than parking a car with a bunch of duffel bags in it like we did, and that’s definitely better than leaving food and toiletries in your car, but the bears are so bold and so smart that even emptying your car isn’t fool-proof.

And of course, this wasn’t our first negative bear encounter in California. The bear that stalked us near L.A., after all, was descended from Yosemite problem bears. In the 1970s, back in the day when the park service actually fed garbage to the bears to bring them into the frontcountry so that visitors could see them, problem bears were relocated. Now, though, relocation has fallen out of favor as a management practice – it just spreads out the problem, and oftentimes, the relocated bear will find its way back anyway. Nowadays, the only way of dealing with a problem bear is to kill it. As the National Forest rangers in California told us, they couldn’t do anything at all about the bear that had stalked us – if they reported the incident to Fish and Wildlife, that department would kill the bear. And the rangers didn’t want that. After all, the bear had just stalked us – it hadn’t even bluff-charged us to try to get us to drop our packs! It could have been worse!

Based on these incidents, it seems that California park management has adopted a consistent policy of ignoring, and therefore enabling, bad bear behavior. If your kid stalks another kid, you punish your kid to deter such behavior in the future. If your kid rips apart your car, causing over $1000 worth of damage, you definitely punish your kid. But if a bear does the same thing, park management turns the other way, either admitting that the bear has done wrong but claiming their hands are tied or, in the case of the park official who took our incident report, projecting blame onto us.

Contrast this with the policies of park management outside California. Brian’s sister, once a park ranger at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, was appalled at the story of the bear near L.A. – if a bear behaved that way in Rocky, she said, it would be shot, not punitively, but rather to protect the rest of the bear population. We’ve seen plenty of bears in other national parks – Rainier, Yellowstone, Glacier – and they all keep their distance. When we’ve met bears in the backcountry in Rainier, for instance, they’ve most commonly run away from us. The few that didn’t simply ignored us and went about their business while we went about ours. No bear outside California has ever displayed the remotest interest in us, much less stalked us. And in all of those parks, keeping your food and toiletries in a hard-sided vehicle is totally sufficient to protect those items – and your vehicle – from bears.

In California, on the other hand, a bear attacks a car, and regardless of what the owner of the car has done to follow park guidelines, it’s the human’s fault. The bear is free to come back the next night and attack a different car, becoming increasingly bold, knowing that the risk that it’s taking is low. The reward may also be low – maybe only one in ten cars has some tasty morsel inside, given park visitors’ efforts to bear-proof their cars – but given zero consequences, that reward is enough for the bear to keep trying, doing hundreds or thousands of dollars worth of damage with each attack. Worse, what if that bear is a female and gives birth to baby bears? How do those babies learn to forage for food? From their mother, of course, who not only teaches them which berries are good to eat, but which types of cars are good to break into, and how to break into them.

As vehicle break-ins become more socialized into the bear population, the overnight parking lots, jokingly known as “bear buffets,” become a reliable food source. Bears don’t have predators in the area, so what limits their population? It’s the food supply. Increase the food supply by augmenting the berry bushes with overnight parking lots, and the park can support more bears. As the bear population grows, given its increased food supply, it becomes dependent on that food supply, and if the supply becomes more difficult to access – perhaps due to stricter park regulations that result in less food left in cars – the bears become increasingly aggressive in their fight for survival.

Ironically, the park official that took our incident report, who refused to hear any evidence that the bear that had attacked our car might be a problem, said his job was to “protect the bears” when in fact, he was saving one bear but destroying the population. Killing a single badly behaved bear is a widely accepted practice on public lands outside California – rather than being the cruel practice that some would make it out to be, it’s the only known way to save the population from developing habits that endanger the entire group. Bad behaviors may be so socialized into the Yosemite bear population at this point, though, that bear management practices used outside California would be ineffective.

The lesson for California’s public-lands management is clear: Admit the problem, and start to work on correcting it, rather than continuing to protect one bear at the expense of the population.

What’s the lesson for JMT hikers, or Yosemite backpackers in general? The best thing to do is simply not to bring your car into the park. There’s a surprisingly good public transportation system around Yosemite, so parking outside the park and taking buses into Yosemite is actually a viable option. If you’re thru-hiking the JMT, you need to take a shuttle at the beginning or end of your hike anyway to get back to your vehicle, so leaving your car in Mammoth or Bishop rather than inside the park isn’t really an inconvenience.

If you really want to take your car into the park and you’re going to park it in a “bear buffet,” then make sure that there’s nothing at all inside the car, but know that even that might not be enough.

All in all, after our experience, we wouldn’t go back to Yosemite just for a weekend backpacking trip – it’s just not worth it, given the risk and/or inconvenience. For a longer trip, like the JMT, we would park outside the park. The trip was fantastic enough that even after spending $1000 to replace our door, it was worth it, but if we were to do it again, we’d avoid that expense by parking outside the park and not serving up our car for dinner.


lisaw said...

Oh, the "me first" attitude! People like this need to stay home or understand that THEY are encroaching on the very little space left available to wildlife by humans. Let's see - you travel into another species habitat presumably to experience what the earth was like before humans paved it over and santitized it - and then, when it isn't a Disneyland experience want the problems killed off? How much sense does that make? Stay home if you can't respect nature and it's life!

Tj and Mark said...

The above commenter has no idea and must not have read your post very well as I think you clearly stated the issue at stake which is the destruction of the natural state of the California bear population. We were backpacking out of Tuolumne a few years ago and had a stalking bear with an eartag. We reported it and I will say that the ranger said that it might be killed with enough bad reports

Anonymous said...

Don't ya just love California logic. Lets tally the issues: Though taxed through the nose, the park can't provide enough bear canisters. You can go into the wilderness, but hoplophobic Cali tree huggers wont allow you to take a weapon into the W-I-L-D-E-R-N-E-S-S. Of course that's because, unlike bears, humans can't be trusted to run around loose.

Anonymous said...

Up in 'The Bob' the land managers shoot bears with rubber bullets if they get to liking hunters carcasses. It's quite a deterrent - the bears learn to stay away despite a large and tasty dinner on offer. Creative solutions benefit all concerned, but we need to take responsibility - bears can't. Its daft to act like a bear's actions are comparable to the actions of a person.

Killing bears that we have made the problem should not be Plan A.