As winter approaches and nights lengthen, I find myself turning to the pile of books that always accumulates over the summer. I have many good volumes awaiting my attention.
Recently, I settled down to read Speaking of Bears, written by long-time biologist friend Rachel Mazur.
I’ve known Rachel since 2000, when she arrived at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks to take over day-to-day management of the bear management program at the twin parks. She spent eight years in that demanding role, and along the way she learned an enormous amount about bears.
Anyone who spends time in our local mountains has bear stories to share. Nearly all of these reflect a fundamental point – bears and people are bound together in an intimate relationship that transcends our ties to most other wildlife species.
Seek out the heart of this relationship and you’ll find a critical fact – bears and people eat the same things, pretty much everything, in fact. Biologists call such species omnivores.
But although bears and humans both fall into the omnivorous category, the two species approach their diets in very different ways. Bears are scavengers – animals that wander the landscape searching for whatever they can find to eat. Humans, on the other hand, collect and store food.
Bring those two behaviors together and you will immediately see the problem. Scavenging bears inevitably figure out that humans can be counted on to have stored food around their campsites and cabins.
As a result, bears often come to associate places of human presence as potential food sources. Add to this mix the details that bears are both highly intelligent and physically powerful, and the relationship between bears and humans begins to become truly complicated.
And there’s more. Bears often learn that human beings are easy to scare away from their stored food. All it takes is a little (usually pretend) threatened violence.
In her book, Rachel tells the story of how well meaning humans have attempted to live with bears for the past century in the national parks of the Sierra Nevada. It’s a troubling saga. More than good intentions, it is clear, are required to keep bears away from human food.
Through a thoughtful series of interviews, Rachel lays out the long and troubled sequence of events. At various times, to keep the bears “under control,” park managers have fed bears at garbage dumps and then closed the dumps; allowed bears to eat garbage and then developed bear-resistant garbage containers; instructed campers to keep their food in their cars and then watched the bears tear those vehicles apart to get at the food.
Along the way, in desperation, park rangers often felt they had no alternative but to kill what were termed “problem bears” – bears that learned to threaten people to get food or did too much damage to human property.
Eventually, as Rachel lays out, decades of experimentation led to reasonable answers. Today, in the local national parks, you’ll find bear-resistant food lockers in campgrounds, garbage containers designed to prevent bear access to their contents, and extensive rules intended to tell people how to keep bears from starting down the human food path that leads all too often to death for the bears.
You’ll also find a world where you can get a ticket from a national park ranger for allowing a bear to obtain human food.
At the center of this story one can find an encouraging attitude. We humans like bears and want to continue to enjoy their presence in our mountains. But having bears around leads inevitably to conflicts over food. The story never ends.
I recommend Rachel’s book. If you’d like to learn more about the complex relationship that binds us to the black bears of the Sierra Nevada, buy a copy: Rachel Mazur, Speaking of Bears: The Bear Crisis and a Tale of Rewilding from Yosemite, Sequoia, and Other National Parks, Falcon Guides, 2015.
© Wm. Tweed