Four black bears have been hit by cars in Yosemite National Park over the last three weeks, leading rangers to urge motorists visiting the famed Sierra Nevada destination to slow down in a summer in which the human traffic has been cut in half because of the coronavirus.
Two of the bears died. The other two were injured and it is unclear whether they survived.
“Yosemite National Park is a big park,” said Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman. “People who come here sometimes are not familiar with the roads or the wildlife. You get bears, foxes, deer and other animals that cross the roads. People need to pay more attention and be aware of their surroundings. The wildlife don’t know the boundaries of the roads. They are just trying to get from point A to point B.”
The two bears that were seriously injured and seen limping off into the woods were hit by drivers going faster than the 25 mph speed limit.
Over the past 10 years, about 20 bears a year have been reported hit by vehicles in Yosemite. So far this year, five have been hit, with three confirmed deaths.
But due to the coronavirus pandemic, there are far fewer visitors in the park. An international tourist destination renowned for its massive water falls, granite rock walls and Sierra forests, Yosemite was closed from March 20 to June 11 — for nearly three months. And now, visitors coming for the day must make reservations online, a requirement park officials put in place to help keep crowds to no more than 50% of normal.
While the park was closed, employees living there reported seeing more bears and other wildlife coming out into places normally full of people. Gediman said it’s unclear if the bears being hit now are still behaving differently because of the closure, and the reopening period now with fewer cars, campers and hikers.
“We are seeing more bears now,” he said. “But this is a naturally active time for bears. The bears can probably sense there are less people. That could be a factor for why they are out more. But whether that’s contributing to them being hit on the roads we don’t know.”
When bears are hit by vehicles, park officials post signs by the side of the road that say, “Speeding Kills Bears” with the image of a red bear on them in the places where bears were hit. The signs are intended to be a reminder for people to slow down in areas frequented by wildlife. Of 20 bears hit by cars last year, the most common locations for collisions were on the roads coming in and out of Yosemite Valley, and along the Tioga Road and Wawona Road.
Most of Yosemite’s 759,000 acres — an area more than double the size of the city of Los Angeles — is roadless wilderness. But the park, which receives more than 4 million visitors a year in a typical year, also has 214 miles of roads. Rangers can and do write speeding tickets. Most of the speed limits are 25 to 35 mph.
More than 400 bears have been hit by vehicles in Yosemite since 1995.
Overall, the park has seen a huge improvement in reducing conflicts between people and bears. Yosemite has hundreds of black bears, which are not endangered. They mostly eat berries, acorns and grasses. There has never been a recorded incident of a black bear killing a person in Yosemite.
Grizzly bears, their larger and fiercer cousins, do occasionally kill people. But grizzlies, despite being immortalized on California’s state flag, have been gone from the Golden State since the last one was shot in Tulare County in 1922. They are now found mostly in Canada, Alaska, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.
In Yosemite, the relationship between people and bears has changed dramatically. From 1923 to 1971, rangers regularly left food out for bears so tourists could take pictures. Park visitors hand-fed bears until the 1930s and, until 1972, there were open garbage dumps that provided bears massive amounts of easy food — and made them seem more like circus attractions than wild animals.
But the bears became a growing problem in Yosemite during the 1980s and 1990s, when the number of park visitors grew dramatically. The animals made national news for their brazen behavior, tearing the doors off cars to get picnic baskets.
Desperate, park officials expanded the number of rangers, biologists and volunteers working on bear issues. They installed more than 4,000 steel, bear-proof lockers, and required campers to store all food in them. The park also launched an aggressive public education campaign requiring campers to sign forms saying they understand it is illegal to feed bears or store food — even toothpaste, deodorant or other scented toiletries — overnight in vehicles. Videos touting bear-safe camping tips play in visitor’s centers. Rangers patrol campsites every night, giving warnings and issuing citations for repeated flouting of the bear rules.
Park officials have also trapped problem bears, fitted them with GPS collars and relocated them to more remote parts of the park.
The result: a 97% drop in the number of problem incidents between bears and people from 1998 to last year.
“Visitors overall have been really good about storing their food carefully and respecting wildlife,” Gediman said. “We’re very proud of how far we’ve come.”
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