Marek Warszawski

When humans and bears mingle on popular wilderness hike, who’s the nuisance animal?

Black bears in California come in a variety of shades including brown and cinnamon. In the wild bears eat mostly grasses, roots, berries and insects. But once they become habituated to human food, the allure of trail mix and energy bars becomes too much.
Black bears in California come in a variety of shades including brown and cinnamon. In the wild bears eat mostly grasses, roots, berries and insects. But once they become habituated to human food, the allure of trail mix and energy bars becomes too much. Special to The Bee

Our trek of four days and 41 miles through the one of the most scenic and heavily trodden sections of the Sierra Nevada began with a warning.

“I cannot stress enough how active a bear area that we’re in, especially if you’re heading to Rae Lakes,” Ranger Helen said while issuing our wilderness permit for that very spot.

“We have a lot of frequent fliers this year in a lot of our campsites. Bears passing through not every night, but borderline.”

With that began the delicate dance between humans and bears that exists on popular trails in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks as well as those in Yosemite National Park.

It’s our getaway and their home. How do we coexist?

Bears in California (which are technically black bears but come in a variety of shades including brown and cinnamon) are not the menacing predators often portrayed on wildlife documentaries filmed in places like Alaska and Montana. Attacks on humans are super rare and almost always precipitated.

More like oversized racoons, California bears are curious, intelligent and hungry. If left alone they’d subsist mainly on a diet of grasses, roots, berries and insects. Unfortunately they have a weakness for human food that is implacable and almost irreversible. Once bears get a taste for what we eat, roots and berries quickly lose their appeal.

Rae Lakes.jpg
Backpackers on the Rae Lakes Loop in Kings Canyon National Park are treated to sweeping views of the Sierra Nevada. The trek’s popularity also attracts bears that raid campsites in search of a quick, calorie-rich meal. Bear sightings and activity are common. Marek Warszawski

Bears that become habituated to human food stop being wild animals. Instead of avoiding us, which they would do in normal circumstances, they become more bold and fearless in their quest for trail mix, energy bars and everything else yummy tasting.

To help prevent this, all backcountry visitors to Yosemite and some areas in Sequoia & Kings Canyon (including Rae Lakes) must carry bear canisters.

Typically built from hard plastic and shaped like a cylinder or beer keg, canisters keep food and other scented items secure from bears and other mountain critters. Bears paw at the canisters but lacking opposable thumbs cannot pry them open. In addition, metal bear lockers have been placed in many popular campsites.

Bear canisters are required for all backpackers in Yosemite National Park and popular areas of Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks.

Despite those measures bears don’t stop trying – and often succeeding – to get their fill of human food. As such, sightings and infiltrations tend to be the main topics of conversation on the trail.

Some 3 miles from Roads End, while ascending the Bubbs Creek switchbacks, my hiking party was stopped by three rangers heading downhill the other direction.

“Lots of bear activity up ahead,” one of them told us. From the top of his backpack, the butt end of a bean-bag shotgun protruded out. “If you leave your canister open while preparing dinner, make sure to keep it within arm’s reach.”

Subsequent parties only confirmed what we’d been hearing.

“We’ve had bears in camp every night,” said a man with a bushy beard. “I laid down next to my pack for a nap and when I woke up a bear was 6 inches from my face.

The bear ran off, and the story had legs. He repeated it to several other fellow hikers.

Because backpackers on the Rae Lakes Loop tend to cluster in a few areas, bears know exactly where to go and what to look for. When they find a party that leaves open canisters unattended, they pounce.

In such an event there are no winners. Humans might lose all or a good portion of their food supply, and bears, though they gain a quick meal, become habituated and more of a threat.

If the same bear repeats this behavior, rangers often have no choice but to put them down. Relocation is impossible because there are so many bears in California, between 30,000 and 40,000 according to conservative Department of Fish & Wildlife estimates, that any relocated bear would be invading another’s territory.

Our fault for letting bear populations soar out of control.

A bear trapped in a car at a South Lake Tahoe residence is freed after an El Dorado County Sheriff's officer shoots out the rear window with a beanbag gun.

Treks like the Rae Lakes Loop are popular for many reasons. The scenery is spectacular (part of it overlaps the iconic John Muir Trail), and the route is just long and challenging enough to make you feel like you’re in the wilderness.

That demand is why Sequoia & Kings Canyon allows up to 25 people per day to start the hike in both clockwise and counterclockwise directions. Combined with JMT hikers, dozens of people descend on the same few campsites during the heart of summer.

Such numbers explain why so many bears come in search of a quick, calorie-rich meal. And the more people that camp in a certain location, the more there’s a chance at least one of them will be careless with food storage.

Which makes me question who’s really the nuisance animal in this scenario. Us or bears?

Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee