Rubbing Elbows

Manual: Bear Necessities

How things work


Illustrated image of Kimberly Lindegren wearing a tan ranger hat

On the slopes and on the trails, through powder and pollen, she keeps recreation enthusiasts safe. Season by season, Kimberly Lindegren, CAS/BS ’13, has developed a great breadth of experience in the great outdoors.

Each April, after four months spent patrolling Utah’s Powder Mountain, Lindegren hangs up her skis heads west for a late spring through early fall tour as a wilderness ranger in Yosemite National Park. Based out of the Tuolumne Meadows Wilderness Center on the eastern side of the Rhode Island–sized park, the education ranger spends one week in the office issuing permits and the next in the field on a 30-to-60-mile loop, checking those permits, assessing trail conditions, managing fire rings in the backcountry, and reminding parkgoers of Leave No Trace principles.

“I love communicating with and teaching people about [wilderness rules] that maybe they knew—or didn’t,” she says. “Then I see them in the field and they’re excited: ‘I did this thing like you said!’”

We’d also be wise to heed her advice. Boasting an EMT certification and eight years of ranger experience, Lindegren is well equipped to help us answer the call of the wild.

Yosemite is home to 300 to 500 black bears. Lindegren explains how not to run afoul of our furry friends.

Black bears, Lindegren likes to tell park visitors, are a lot like people. Different birthplaces and upbringings yield different behaviors, so she knows her Yosemite black bears best.

Based on her experience, these creatures are “pretty chill,” Lindegren says. “Sometimes people in bear management say they’re ‘just big raccoons,’” foraging for mushrooms and berries and any food within whiffing distance. The description is followed by an obvious caveat: “They are still wild animals. They’ve got teeth, they’ve got claws, so they can [still] hurt you.”

According to the National Park Service (NPS), a little more than half of black bear attacks in recent decades in the US were defensive—female bears protecting cubs. Around 15 percent have been predatory attacks by males, and the remaining third pertained to food.

The Yosemite wildlife team hazes its black bears to maintain their fear of humans but will only euthanize them if they become food aggressive and develop the habit of bluff charging people. Attacks are rare, and, per NPS, black bears haven’t killed or seriously injured anyone in Yosemite. In fact, humans have proved much more dangerous, hitting at least 19 with cars—killing five—on park roads in 2021 alone.  

Following a few guidelines can preserve a peaceful coexistence. Words of advice from Lindegren to bear in mind:

Keep all your food—and wrappers—on your person or in a locked bear canister. In Yosemite, we require bear canisters. Because human food is so dense and so high in calories, bears will start to seek it out because it takes a lot less energy to steal a 200-calorie bar than to forage for 200 calories.

If you see a bear on a trail, don’t keep walking toward it. Make noise, let it know you’re there, but respect its space. Generally, it’ll either dart off—or eventually wander off—the trail.

But don’t run away. That can instigate a bear’s predator-prey drive. That’s true for mountain lions, too.

Never try to pet or get close to a bear. I’ve only heard of one person being bitten by a bear in Yosemite. She was trying to take a selfie. Dude, seriously?

Don’t bring bear spray to California. It’s not permitted in Yosemite. You want to carry it in grizzly bear country, as they can be much more aggressive and territorial. If a black bear is attacking you, it’s most likely out of defense, and bear spray isn’t going to deter it. People are more likely to injure themselves using it.

Be hypervigilant of food storage and your surroundings in the fall. As the fall comes along, black bears go into hyperphagia, during which they need to eat the caloric equivalent of 42 Big Macs a day, so that’s the season when they can become a bit more bold. They’ve also likely seen humans throughout the summer and might be a little less cautious. That’s why it’s important to be aware and be ready to scare them off if need be.

Find Your Bearings

A couple more facts and observations to paw-nder:

  • Despite its appearance on the California state flag, the California grizzly is no more. Los Angeles–area fruit farmer Cornelius Birket Johnson killed the second-to-last confirmed grizzly bear in Southern California in 1916, according to Natural History magazine. The last known California grizzly bear was shot in the early 1920s.
  • Plastic bear canisters are usually effective at keeping out bears because they require opposable thumbs to unlock. One clan of brainy Yosemite bears is the exception, Lindegren says. “Bears are smart and they can teach each other different behaviors,” she says. “We have one bear who knows that she can throw bear canisters off a cliff, then go down to 1,500 feet and get the food out of the broken bear canister—because they’re not cliff-proof. She’s even taught her cubs how to do it.”