Marek Warszawski

Too many bears are being killed in Yosemite. Is it time to ban cars?

Too many bears are being hit by cars in Yosemite National Park – 11 this year alone, as of last week – prompting park officials to step up enforcement of speed limits in collision-prone areas.

“One of the best ways to help protect wildlife in Yosemite National Park is to slow down and follow the posted speed limits within the park,” park superintendent Michael Reynolds said in a press release.

Everyone, humans and bears alike, can agree this is a good idea. Slower speeds will result in fewer incidents that leave bears killed or wounded. Which is a more than worthy goal.

However, I can’t help but think we’re leaving out a sizable chunk of the big picture, not to mention a piece of irrefutable logic:

The number of bears being hit by cars in Yosemite is directly proportional to the number of cars being driven on park roads.

So if there were fewer people behind the wheel, fewer bears would end up as hood ornaments.

Right?

More than 400 bears have been struck by vehicles since 1985 in Yosemite simply because some people are driving too fast.

It’s also because there are too many drivers in the park – and because we’ve built too many roads to accommodate all of them. Not only that, we’ve also consistently repaved and widened those roads to improve the flow of traffic and make those higher speeds attainable.

Except you don’t hear the park service talking about that. Why? Because officials like Reynolds would have to cop to their own culpability. Much easier just to wag the finger of blame at tourists.

LIF EPZ TIOGA BEAR
In September 2015 in Yosemite National Park, a bear cub watches traffic from behind a tree along Tioga Road just behind the Crane Flat gas station. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA Fresno Bee file

Again, I’m not arguing that enforcing posted speed limits in designated Wildlife Protection Zones in Yosemite Valley and along sections of Big Oak Flat Road, El Portal Road, Wawona Road and Tioga Road isn’t a good thing.

It absolutely is, and good on the park service for taking that step.

But a better, much more bear-friendly solution would be to reduce (or even eliminate) car traffic in the first place.

This may seem like a radical notion. Really, it isn’t. Decades ago, there was a plan to build parking structures along Highways 41, 120 and 140 and make people bus to Yosemite Valley unless they had lodging or campsite reservations.

That plan would have greatly reduced traffic in Yosemite Valley, lowered air pollution and probably resulted in fewer bear collisions. But it went nowhere.

Other parks, however, adopted the idea. For example, the main road into Zion National Park has been car-free every summer since 2000. More than 4.5 million people visited Zion in 2017, and now they have to climb aboard a shuttle bus that delivers them to trailheads and other scenic points.

Yosemite, which had 4.3 million visitors in 2017, could follow suit. Instead, the car culture prevails.

(To be fair, I should mention the recently revamped Mariposa Grove is only accessible via a shuttle bus from the southern entrance. Perhaps park officials are using that as a test case.)

Anything Yosemite can do to reduce car-bear collisions is a worthy step. But let’s not kid ourselves that enforcing speed limits in special zones is the sole preventive measure.

As long as thousands of cars zoom along park roads every day, bears will continue to be the innocent victims.

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Marek Warszawski writes opinion columns on news, politics, sports and quality of life issues for The Fresno Bee, where he has worked since 1998. He is a Bay Area native, a UC Davis graduate and lifelong Sierra frolicker. He welcomes discourse with readers but does not suffer fools nor trolls.
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