People love seeing black bears when they visit Yosemite National Park in California. But encounters don't always go well. The park has come up with a new way to keep humans and bears safe.
Fresno State University student Quiang Chang was walking recently with his friends along the rushing Merced River. It was his fifth time visiting Yosemite National Park, and he hadn't seen a bear.
But if they appear, Chang said, "I probably would just quietly ... just observe them and take a picture."
Keeping a healthy distance from bears is exactly what park officials want people to do. But training the public to think this way hasn't been easy, says National Park Service spokesperson Scott Gediman. Twenty years ago, human-bear encounters in Yosemite were very common.
"It was not atypical to have three or four vehicles broken into every night," he says.
Bears would rip open car doors or smash windows in search of food. But others are craftier. One park visitor even took a video of a bear opening a car door with its paws.
In 1998, there were 1,600 encounters with bears. Now, there are fewer than 100 every year, says Yosemite National Park wildlife biologist Ryan Leahy. That's because park rangers have worked to educate the public on storing food properly, and Leahy says they now use technology to track the bears.
Leahy works in a cabin on the edge of Yosemite Valley. He's tracking bears online in real time using the GPS collars the animals wear.
In the past, he says, human interaction with bears often resulted in having to kill the animals. By using these tracking tools, fewer and fewer bears are killed. If a bear gets too close to people, Leahy's team can scare it away, catch it or relocate it.
Tracking data from the past few years points to another trend: Bears are being hit by cars, and speeding is now their biggest threat. Leahy says 28 were hit last year, and many of them died.
"You're talking about 10 percent of our bears potentially being hit by vehicles each year," he says. "Just slowing down a little bit will give you that stopping distance required to prevent a collision."
The key, he says, is education. His team has created an interactive map-based website where the public can track the lives of selected bears and see general areas where they're hit the most.
Leahy says the bears' locations are delayed on the site so people aren't able to track them in real time. On the site, park visitors can also learn about how to be safe if a bear is around.
"So what we want to do with this website in a positive way is engage people before they get here: 'Hey, here's the real story about black bears in Yosemite National Park,' " Leahy says.
He hopes the site means fewer midnight calls with a dented car and either a dead or wounded bear.