The simple act of not securing your food in a national park designated campsite food locker can condemn a black bear to death.
Bears are fascinating creatures. Seeing a black bear or a grizzly in the wild or in a zoo elicits a thrill that few other animals in North America can match. That thrill may be tinged with fear for some, but there is no denying that bears get the adrenaline flowing.
"I think when you're looking face to face with a bear," says wildlife biologist David Graber.
"You can recognize that cognition going on behind the eyes. That bear is calculating things, trying to decide who you are and what you're going to do, whether he's going to go back to eating or turn around and run, or charge you."
Graber, along with fellow biologists Ryan Leahy and Rachel Mazur discuss the history of human/bear conflict in Yosemite National Park. Yosemite served as a case study for those interactions, as well as for some of the solutions that have been implemented to avoid conflicts.
The recent deadly attack of a hiker by a grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park has again brought bear and human conflicts into the spotlight. While such incidents are rare, there was a time when both visitors and national park staff were rather ignorant of bear behavior with humans.
"People are either terrified of bears, or think they're cute and cuddly...and they're somewhere in the middle," says Leahy. "They spend the majority of their lives looking for food. That's their major goal in life, to get as much food as they can on a daily basis."
Mazur adds to that reality by connecting the behavior of park visitors to the natural behavior and intelligence of black bears.
"Once they learn that they can get food from humans, they've learned it!" she says. "They're not going to forget it. So that information is available to them. And so what was a wild bear, foraging out on wild lands, now becomes a bear that we're going to have these conflicts with."
Graber concludes, "And then we have now created a monster, that we really have no choice but to destroy."
The problem is food. How we handle food is also the solution. Yosemite campsites are outfitted with lockable, heavy metal foot lockers large enough to hold food coolers.
This simple camp accessory has been instrumental in dropping the number of black bears entering campsites in search of food, and becoming "problem bears" that may need to be euthanized. Educating campers on safe and secure food handling and storage is another key component that park staff focus on.
"Everyone has a chance to be part of the solution. Everyone has a chance to contribute, to making this a better place, a wilder place, a more stunning place, that will last into the future. Everyone has that chance," said Mazur.
They're exciting. They're handsome. They're fascinating to watch. And I think we can live with them very well in national parks," concluded Graber.