Food Cravings Dumpster Diving and Yosemite Black Bears


Food storage regulations in Yosemite National Park may have reduced the amount of human food black bears consume but the bears still crave it and they will go to great lengths to get it. Currently Yosemite invests $500,000 a year on bear proofing, education and other maintenance programs to keep bear-human interactions to a minimum. However, the bears, once conditioned to the tasty nature of human food never forget and continue to raid campgrounds and dumpster dive to satiate their cravings.

In the early 1900’s, black bears in Yosemite learned to be human food pirates and became conditioned to living off the tourists, their food supplies and the garbage of Yosemite residents. This food conditioning soon made the bears dangerous, as they got more and more creative in their methods including breaking into cars and cabins. As they became more acclimated to the human element, they also became more aggressive when challenged.

FoodAt a certain point, out of a need to protect the human element the park service made the decision to kill the worst of the pesky bears. Then in 1923, park authorities made what would seem to be a counter-intuitive decision to operate a black bear feeding program within the park for the entertainment of visitors. Access to a fish hatchery from 1923 to 1975 was also provided ostensibly to allow the bears to catch their own food naturally while again acting as a tourist draw. While the idea was to feed the bears in a controlled manner, these methods resulted in even further conditioning and reinforcement of the bears’ craving for human food.

John Hopkins of the University of California, Santa Cruz has studied the dietary habits of black bears and identified the fluctuations in their human food consumption over the years. According to his most recent study in which he analyzed hair samples from the bears as far back as 1915, the consumption is way down. However, this is much more likely due to bear pirating prevention techniques than to a reduction in the conditioned cravings that the bears have for human food. Statistically, the percentage of human food in the black bear diet was at its lowest from 1915 to 1919 when it was at 13 percent and at its highest from 1975 to 1985 when it peaked at 35 percent.

In 1998, there was a record-breaking 1,584 bear related incidents in Yosemite National Park. This prompted the park to enact strict food storage regulations and preventative measures. Since then, despite the millions of tourists who visit the park bringing copious amounts of supplies and generating impressive amounts of garbage, the consumption of human food by black bears has reverted to the levels seen in 1915 when the tourist population footprint was much smaller.

foodThese encouraging statistics can be directly attributed to the park’s efforts to thwart black bears in their concerted attempts to steal human food from the coolers of campers, park dumpsters and the garbage cans of Yosemite residents. Ultimately, these methods will continue to reduce human-bear interactions thus making Yosemite National Park a safer attraction for tourists. The bears may experience culinary frustration but the park’s emphasis on security measures should serve to prolong the lives of black bears who might otherwise be killed because of the danger their conditioned behavior presents.

However, successfully denying the black bears access does necessarily mean that their cravings for human food will subside. After decades of conditioning, it is likely they will persist in their dumpster diving pirating efforts until new generations of unconditioned bears can revert to their natural feeding instincts.

By Alana Marie Burke
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