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Black Bears in Yosemite: Food Storage and Backcountry Safety

Published 2019-05-21
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Worried about bears in Yosemite? Don’t panic! In Yosemite's written history, there has never been a death caused by aggressive black bears.  That being said, its incredibly important to keep them out of your food, which is a much more common occurrence.  The National Park Service's Bear Management team tracks every time a bear gets into human food, recording it as an incident.  In 2018 there were only 22 reported bear incidents, and in 2017 only 38 incidents were reported. Considering that on average Yosemite sees around 4 million visitors a year, chances are slim you'll have any confrontations.

That being said, it is of the utmost importance to follow Yosemite's bear safety procedures outlined in this article. Since bears have never caused death in Yosemite, these outlines are more for the safety of the bears. This article is to educate you on the black bears in Yosemite, how to stay safe, and what to do in case you do encounter a Yosemite black bear.
 
The Black Bears in Yosemite
The first thing you may need to know about the black bears in Yosemite is that most are not even black. Many of the black bears in Yosemite actually have brown or reddish-brown fur. Do not let this fool you into thinking you’ve seen a brown bear. In fact, brown bears or ‘grizzly bears’ have been eradicated from the state of California since the 1920’s. Black bears are also much less aggressive than Brown bears and prefer grass, berries, and nuts over meat. Black bears also eat ants, termites, insect larvae, and unfortunately, human food…and/or nearly anything with a scent as you’ll learn in the next section of this article.
 
Food Storage
Federal regulations require that you store your food in a bear-resistant food container or a food locker. Food must always be properly stored unless it is within arm’s reach. This means no napping or taking a swim without first safely securing and storing your food and scented items. ‘Food’ includes canned goods, bottles, drinks, and unwashed items used for preparing or eating meals. This also includes ANY empty packaging.

‘Scented items’ refer to ANYTHING that can be smelled. Scented items can be described as just about anything that you would put in your mouth or on your skin. Examples of scented items would be soaps, cosmetics, toiletries, and trash.

You’ll have access to food lockers while camping in Backpackers Camp. While you’re hiking and camping in the backcountry though, you will need to use a bear-resistant portable container or ‘bear canister’. You will rent the container from the Wilderness Office when you pick up your permit. (We provide exact change in your crate to cover this expense.)

You may store food in your car during daylight hours only. The food must be out of sight and the windows must be all the way up. Do not store food in your tent or car after dark. Please note that hanging food is illegal throughout Yosemite. 
Failure to store your food properly may result in impoundment of your food or car and/or a fine of up to $5,000 and/or revocation of your camping permit. Watch the Bears and Food Storage video from the Park Service to learn more.
 
Bear Encounter
If you do happen to encounter a bear while staying in Yosemite, please keep a distance of 50 yards or more. If you encounter a bear in a populated area, i.e. Backpackers Camp or Half Dome Village, stand your ground, wave your arms, and make loud noises to scare it away. If you’re in a group, you can huddle together to appear larger and more intimidating.

If you encounter a bear on the trail or while camping in the backcountry, i.e. on Pohono Trail or at Dewey Point, keep your distance and monitor the bear's actions. Do NOT approach the bear and absolutely do not turn your back and run. Remain at least 50 yards away and wait for the bear to move along.

It is incredibly rare, but black bears have been known to bluff charge hikers (I.E. The bear charges at full speed and turns away at the last moment.) This could happen if the bear feels its cubs or territory is threatened.  If this were to happen, stand your ground and do not run.  Attacks are incredibly rare, and no one has been killed or seriously injured by a black bear in Yosemite's written history.

Please note that bear spray/pepper spray is not allowed in Yosemite. Agressive bears are incredibly rare and humans armed with bear spray pose more of a threat.  This came shortly after an incident where a tourist unloaded his bear pepper spray on a pizza eating raccoon at the Half Dome Village Pizza Deck.