One day this fall, residents of El Portal, just west of Yosemite National Park, began noticing a black bear nosing around town, rummaging through garbage cans and parked vehicles and generally making a nuisance of himself.
The bear was clearly hungry and looking to bulk up for hibernation. He was also wearing a GPS collar, thanks to a previous foray into human habitation that got him captured. So park rangers knew where to find him.
The plan was to scare the bear away from the area, a process known as hazing, or capture him if that didn’t work. But things didn’t go as planned.
“It was struck and killed on Highway 140 in El Portal,” recalled Scott Gediman, a Yosemite spokesman. “We were attempting to trap the bear and haze him, and a visitor hit him.”
As the bruin population increases throughout California, roadway collisions with black bears have become an alarming fact of life. At least 27 have been hit by vehicles in Yosemite this year, continuing a disturbing trend on mountain roads and highways around the state, which has seen at least 100 collisions this past year, wildlife officials said.
The number of collisions this year mirrors last year despite a park-wide effort to address the problem, which includes numerous signs and a public information campaign.
The El Portal bear was unusual in that its body was found by park rangers. In most cases, the powerful beasts drag themselves off the road after being hit — and sometimes travel long distances before dying.
A handful of the bears hit by cars this year were later found dead, but nobody knows the fate of many of the others. The actual number of bear collisions is probably much higher, Yosemite officials said, but a great many of the crashes are not reported by drivers.
“If a bear or any other animal gets struck and they run off, we will go out and investigate and look for the bear, but you can’t find them most of the time because they are hiding,” Gediman said. “That’s just a tragic situation because they are going to be suffering.”
American black bears roam far and wide looking for food or mates, scarfing up to 20,000 calories a day. They are curious and intelligent with a strong sense of smell.
The rise in human encounters tracks with a steadily growing black bear population in California. In 1984, 4,080 lived in the state, but the count now stands at about 40,000, wildlife officials said. More bears means more cubs and, as the bruins compete for food to feed their young, more are ambling out of the woods, across roads and highways.
Wildlife biologists estimate that more than 400 have been hit on roadways in Yosemite since 1995, making vehicle collisions one of the leading causes of black bear mortality in the region. The number has alarmed officials, considering only 300 to 500 black bears live in Yosemite, according to the most recent estimates.
Such crashes are not limited to Yosemite. In 2016, at least 135 black bears were reported hit by cars statewide, according to the California Highway Patrol, but analysts say that’s only a fraction of the real number. The CHP is the only agency that keeps track — and it reports only the incidents involving vehicle damage or injuries to humans.
The danger to motorists became starkly clear on Thanksgiving when a woman and her 19-month-old daughter died in a collision with a bear on Highway 4 in Calaveras County.
Sarah Rohde, 27, was driving a Subaru Impreza near the town of Vallecito at around 6 p.m. when she hit the bear, which crashed through the windshield, killing Rohde and her daughter, Ariana Harris, and injuring her 4-year-old son, Julian Harris.
Fraser Shilling, the co-director of the Road Ecology Center at UC Davis, said that stretch of Highway 4 in the Gold Country is often stained with blood from bears and other wildlife. Other trouble spots for bear collisions, he said, are Highway 41 into Yosemite, and highways 49, 50, 80 and 89 through the Sierra Nevada foothills.
Wrecks involving cars and bears in Yosemite have been rising since 1995, and peaked in 2015, with 38 reported incidents. Last year, three bear cubs were orphaned after their mother was hit and killed on Tioga Road. They had to be raised at the Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care Center.
The park has put up warning signs, including on Glacier Point Road and Tioga Road leading into Tuolumne Meadows, where the majority of the crashes have occurred.
The campaign to protect bears was incorporated into an effort that started in 1998 called Keep Bears Wild. That year bears were involved in 1,584 aggressive incidents, including car and cabin break-ins, the snatching of tourist lunches and garbage raids.
At times in the 1990s, 10 to 15 cars would be ransacked in a night. In 2000, bears broke into more than 300 cars, smashing windows, clawing doors open and ransacking the interiors.
Bidding to break the bears of their junk food habit, the park installed bear-proof storage lockers at campgrounds, parking lots and trail heads. The nonprofit Yosemite Conservancy spent about $70,000 to outfit problem bears with GPS collars — which has revealed how frequently bears cross roads and highways.
“People are being wonderful about storing their food properly, but we feel that we need to work on getting visitors to just drive slower,” Gediman said. “It’s a safety issue for the bears and for the drivers.”