The first experience started with a camper reporting that there was a bear jam along the main road just outside the campground. A bear jam is just as it sounds, a traffic jam caused by the sighting of a bear near the roadway. Everyone stops and looks while trying to get a good picture. Some stop in the middle of the road blocking the flow of traffic resulting in a jam. Anyway, Connie went out on the porch and could see the stopped traffic with several people out of their vehicles and apparently approaching the bear. From her vantage point Connie could not see a ranger or anyone from resource management trying to manage the people. She reported that to me and I immediately called the communications center via radio to report a bear jam with people out of vehicles and no one from the park in the area. The response to my call indicated there were no resources available to assist. Not good news.
By this time the bear had moved away from the road and crossed the river to our side. Connie jumped on the golf cart and headed down the road to see where the bear would go. She called me to report that the bear had crossed over the campground entrance road and was headed towards the campground’s lower loop. I asked if she needed help. She did! I locked the office and ran down the road and met up with Connie just as the bear crossed the road again. Now he was headed southeast back towards the creek, but also towards a picnic area where our access road bridges the creek. I knew there were likely several people in that area, so we kept one eye on the bear as we drove toward the picnic area to warn everyone there was a bear in the area.
I approached the picnic table closest to the bear. I could see the bear about 200 yards north of that location and told the folks they would be advised to move their food back to their vehicles just in case the bear decided to come that way. I tried to impress on these folks, none of whom who had ever seen a bear in the wild, that the bear could close the distance in a matter of minutes if not seconds. They started making motions that convinced me they were going to pack it up. Meanwhile Connie warned all the other people in the area.
We decided one of us needed to go back to the office to take care of business and to act as a radio relay as our hand held radios don’t always come in clearly at the communication center. By relaying through the office we can use the mobile unit installed there for clear communications through a repeater to the center. So, I drove Connie back to the office, a distance of about 3/8 of a mile. I then hustled back to the picnic area to find more people than before and several between a small stand of trees and a motorhome very near to where that picnic table is located. Sure enough, the bear was in the trees heading towards the table. I yelled to the folks near the motorhome to move back as they were well within the 100 yard limit to the bear. I then stole a quick glance towards the picnic table to find no people and all the food still on the table. I positioned the golf cart in a location while not directly in line between the bear and the table, but certainly in a position where I was closer to the bear than he to the table. I was trying to haze the bear away from the table by yelling and waving my arms. I had my bear spray at the ready just in case the bear decided I was better looking than the food. I located the people who had been at the table and yelled at them to clear the table while I continued to distract, dissuade and hopefully encourage the bear to leave the area.
For his part the bear seemed confused. He really wanted whatever was on the table, as he kept standing on his hind legs and sniffing the air to try to identify what was on the table. As I continued my yelling and arm waving the bear would get down on all fours and look over at me. Then he would start to move back towards the table all the while keeping me in his view. I was going nuts trying to keep that bear away from the food. I stole another glance towards the table only to catch the owner of the food standing at the table taking pictures. When I yelled at him this time his reaction was nearly comical as he jumped so violently he nearly dropped his camera. The table was cleared within seconds of that verbal attack.
With the food gone, the bear’s interest quickly waned. He really didn’t like me yelling a waving my arms, so he started to wander towards the road again. It was much easier for me to get people to move now than it had been earlier. With my shrill warning people scattered like cockroaches when the kitchen light is turned on. A ranger pulled into the area just as the bear got safely to the other side of the campground access road heading south. The ranger gave him a blast with her siren and lights and he ambled into the woods. The ranger then went on up to the office while I tried to explain to the picnickers how they had put the bear and me into a very unsafe position. Unfortunately, they didn’t get it. They were really excited by the “show”. I can assure you, it was not a show and I was certainly concerned about my personal safety. The sad truth is that had they listened to me when I first recommended moving their food it likely would never have gotten to a point where I had to get within fifteen feet of a bear to prevent the bear from getting either to the food or the people. Had the bear succeeded he likely would have eventually been removed from the eco-system, permanently.
A mere eight days later the same bear would come back to visit us one more time. I had gone to Mammoth to get our change as the rangers had not been able to get out to us due to other commitments. On my return, as I was approaching the turnoff to Sheepeater Cliff the traffic stopped. I couldn’t see anything ahead of me except cars and people out of vehicles. That told me there was a bear around. I got my car off the road and donned my orange traffic vest and started getting people back in their cars and the traffic moving again. I was never able to get an eye on the critter that caused the jam. I got back to our car and headed back to the campground.
Soon after I got back Connie got a report from a fisherman that there was a bear on the Bighorn Trail headed towards the campground. Connie closed the office and took me to where the trail intersects the campground in the golf cart. I started down the trail on foot towards the trailhead where the bear had been sited. I got all the way to the trailhead without seeing the bear. When I got there I could see a lot of people on the other side of the bridge looking up. Connie met me at that point and we headed across the bridge to find the bear treed with people directly below him. We moved the people out of the way and once things were calmed down and no one was paying any attention to the bear I took Connie back to the office and then returned to take up a position a safe distance away to monitor the situation.
Connie reported the situation to the communications center only to learn there wasn’t anyone immediately available to assist. So, I watched and I watched and I watched. While watching I had several opportunities to point the bear out to others who took their photos from safe distances and admired him for his ability to climb. The bear spent a good bit of time getting comfortable and then seemed to take a nap. After about an hour I returned to the office to get my camera so I too could get some good images. By the time I got back the bear had come down from the tree and was now just across the bridge in the willows. This was a much less stable situation as the bear was hard to see and there were many fishermen in the area. So, now I had a more dynamic situation to monitor. Soon our weekend ranger came along, but rather than assisting me she went up to the office. As it turned out she didn’t know I had gotten change and was on her way to pick up the money to make change from. I watched the bear amble upstream and away from the creek and the fishermen.
When the ranger came back from the office she noted the bear was on the main road and called in to the communications center. I went out to the highway to assist. We were soon joined by another ranger. The first ranger left to respond to another call leaving the second ranger and me to work the bear along the road. For the next hour or so the bear wandered back and forth across the road never getting more than several yards away from the road. Of course that kept traffic jamming up. At one time we had a backup of at least a quarter mile because we had stopped traffic to let the bear cross and then he didn’t. It was really frustrating for all involved. The people closest to the bear were the happiest as he gave them plenty of good camera shots. People several cars back were not seeing anything and were therefore not so happy. Of course there were those who wanted to leave their vehicle right in the middle of the driving lane while they took their photos. Those folks raised the general frustration level to the max, at least as far as the ranger and I were concerned.
I never got a photo of this bear! He eventually wandered away from the road and out of sight allowing the ranger and me to return to our other responsibilities. It was a long day.
Ten days later we were once again on duty when we heard over the radio that rangers were working a bear along the road well south of the campground. Not long after that we were advised by a motorist who felt compelled to warn us that the bear was only about a mile away and headed our way. We remained alert while Pat and Jack headed out to help the rangers. They didn’t get very far before they were called off by the rangers as the bear had moved away from the road and out of sight. Just a few minutes later the bear entered the campground from the south and was trotting into an occupied campsite when those occupants spotted him. They all jumped up at the same time scaring the bear as much as he had scared them. The campers told me later that the bear actually skidded to a stop he was so startled to see people. The bear made a hasty lateral retreat running along the campground road towards the river. In a flash he was across the river and deep in the grass on the other side. He must have been looking for a quiet place to have dinner away from people, cars and rangers.
Once again I setup a watch on the bear to make sure that had he decided to come back across the river and into the campground we would have time to warn our campers and attempt to haze him. However, this bear really liked the grass on the other side of the river and dined over there for about an hour before heading over the ridge to the east.
These three encounters were with two different bears with the last one being the different one. We had seen the first bear many times before both this season and last. The other guy was new to our neighborhood and it was obvious he was not comfortable being as close to people as we found himself. We hope he retains that unease and stays away from this and other concentrations of humans.
While I have referred to these bears as he, I have no way of knowing the gender of these two bears. If you don’t see them with cubs you can’t usually tell their gender. If they have cubs, they are females.
These bears were both black bears although neither was truly black. The first one has a wide cinnamon blonde streak of hair along his back from neck to tail. The other is nearly all blonde with the major exception being his face. He was miss-identified as a grizzly by several motorists who saw him along the road.
I waited to the end to make this distinction because it really doesn’t much matter which kind of bear you are dealing with when it is happening live and in color. Many people feel that grizzly bears are more dangerous than black bears. That really isn’t quite true. The two species have different foraging habits that make their flight or fight behavior different. Black bears spend most of their time in the forests. When startled they can climb a tree in a flash. Grizzly bears spend most of their time in open meadows affording them little opportunity to flee when startled. Therefore, they tend to stand their ground. However, if a human acts appropriately once having startling a grizzly bear all can work out without physical contact, just as it would with a black bear that has scrambled up a tree.
When you put cubs into the story line it matters not one little bit which specie you encounter. Mother bears of both species will protect their cubs to the death. Usually that means the death of the “intruder”.
Bears generally do not want to interact with people. If they see, smell or hear a human before the human sees them it is unlikely the human will ever see the bear. At least that seems to be the way it works away from roads. For reasons I cannot explain when bears are foraging near roadways they don’t seem to pay much attention to people. That is both good and bad. The good part is we can get good pictures. The bad news is that people tend to think the bear must be tame, which could not be further from the truth.
Bears spend their lives eating, breeding, raising young (females only), hibernating – repeat.
There have been a lot of other things going on, but I am way over 2500 words into this post and I have not one photo to break up those words. Well, that is I have no photos that help tell these stories. So, I am going to stop here and try to get this published. I will then go to work on my next post which will have fewer words and many more photos.