Black Bears in Yosemite

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After watching dozens of colorful ichneumonid wasps ovipositing in a charred forest patch, we walked a bit further off trail into an open flooded field. This area offered a good viewing distance, and I joked to Starr about seeing a bear across the field on the other side.

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Just a few minutes later I looked to the left and saw dark face peering at me from within the young pine trees. This one seemed to be an old cub, so we kept an eye around for mom while we enjoyed the moment. The cub remained frozen in place as if it had been mid-step when it noticed us, and the only visible movement was when it stuck out its cute pink tongue. After about thirty seconds the bear continued walking along the fallen tree and made its way further into the forest.

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A young black bear stares at us inquisitively just ~8 meters away, photographed as spotted in Yosemite National Park
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The second bear encounter was a bit more alarming. Right as we turned a corner a bear was foraging about five meters away. We clearly caught this bear off guard, and it jumped a bit further away. The bear continued to munch on vegetation for several minutes, and after noticing that we were still within the line of sight the bear ran off. It was surprising to me how quiet the two bears were. These encounters are sort of what I would expect from a puma, but I had imagined bears to be much more noticeable both visually and by sound. Certainly after finding the two bears in such a way I was on guard in case we stumbled upon a mom with cubs.

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As we made our way out of Yosemite we spotted a mother bear with two cubs uphill from our car. The previous two bears were very dark, but these were light brown in coloration. The mother bear seemed constantly aware of her cubs, turning her head back and forth every few steps to keep an eye on them. The cubs on the other hand seemed oblivious to the world, curiously investigating around the rocks and fallen trunks.

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Light brown coloration on a mother bear. Watch the footage below to see the cubs

Though large mammals may be thought of as easily observable animals, they can be cryptic and patchily distributed. Seeing bears from a vehicle is one type of encounter, but the ones on foot are so much more rewarding. It’s incredible to share a moment with wildlife where both you and the bear make eye contact, briefly recognizing each other before the bear disappears back into the wilderness. Furthermore, there are only an estimated 300-500 black bears in Yosemite. In an area as large as Yosemite it can be difficult to happen to be in the same spot as a bear, and much of it comes down to luck. With only several hundred bears it’s critical to be respectful of wildlife and minimize human contact. Decades ago bears and humans were in frequent contact with one another in Yosemite, with the bears having become less weary and more willing to approach humans to obtain food. These sort of encounters make dangerous confrontations more common and can put bears at risk if they consistently depend on human food as a resource, not to mention the effect on their diet and health. Black bears are known to put substantial effort into getting food, rampaging through camp sites and breaking into cars. For all these reasons many national parks strive to keep their bears wild, strongly encouraging people to be more careful about how they store food when in the forest and being respectful during a bear encounter. It was great to see that the bears we encountered seemed cautious and uninterested in approaching us — exactly what I would expect from an animal in the wild.

Footage of the bear encounters

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