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People love seeing black bears when they visit Yosemite National Park in California, but encounters don't always go well for the bears or the people. Valley Public Radio's Ezra David Romero tells us the park has come up with a new way to keep humans and bears safe.
EZRA DAVID ROMERO, BYLINE: Fresno State University student Quiang Chang is visiting Yosemite National Park for the fifth time. He and his friends are walking along the rushing Merced River. He hasn't seen a bear yet.
QUIANG CHANG: If they appear, I would love to, you know, see them.
ROMERO: If Chang does, he has a plan.
CHANG: I probably would just quietly, like, just observe them and take a picture.
ROMERO: That's exactly what park officials want people to do, to keep a healthy distance from bears. 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 really common.
SCOTT GEDIMAN: It was not atypical to have with three or four vehicles broken into every night.
ROMERO: Bears would rip open car doors or smash windows in search of food. But others are craftier. Here's the sound from a video that a park visitor recorded of a bear opening a car door with its paws.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh, my.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Oh, my God (unintelligible).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Laughter).
(SOUNDBITE OF HONKING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Get out of there.
ROMERO: In 1998, there were 1,600 encounters with bears. And 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 them. We're in a cabin on the edge of Yosemite Valley where Leahy works. He's tracking bears online in real time. The animals are wearing GPS collars.
RYAN LEAHY: Yeah, it looks like all the bears are - have gone into their dens.
ROMERO: He says in the past, 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, his team can scare it away, catch it or relocate it.
LEAHY: But you can see this bear traveled, like, 30 miles here to go back to where it appears like it's going to den. These circle points are daytime data points and the stars are night.
ROMERO: 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.
LEAHY: You're talking about 10 percent of our bears potentially being hit by vehicles each year. Just slowing down a little bit will give you the stopping distance required to prevent a collision.
ROMERO: Leahy says the key is education. His team has created an interactive map-based website open to the public where people can track the lives of selected bears and see general areas where they're hit the most. Leahy says the bears' location is delayed on that site so people aren't able to track them in real time. It's also a place where park visitors can learn all about how to be safe if a bear's around.
LEAHY: 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.
ROMERO: Leahy hopes a site means fewer midnight calls with a dented car and either a dead or wounded bear. For NPR News, I'm Ezra David Romero in Yosemite National Park.
(SOUNDBITE OF MATISYAHU SONG, "LOVE BORN")
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