The black bears at Yosemite National Park in California used to have a big junk food habit. For years, about one third of their diet consisted of chips, burgers, and other food brought in by park visitors. Park officials decided they needed to take steps to stop bears from munching on food meant for humans. That decision has turned out to be good for bears and people because sharing food had led to many dangerous encounters.
BEARS BEHAVING BADLY
For decades, officials at Yosemite had actually encouraged bears to feast on human food. Starting in the 1920s, park rangers set up feeding stations, where they placed leftovers for the bears. Visitors who wanted to see the bears close-up would then know where they were likely to spot them. Park officials hoped that the feeding stations would also prevent bears from traveling into neighboring areas for food.
Unfortunately, these picnics created trouble for park visitors. Once the bears became hooked on human food, they began to forage in garbage bins and campsites and even break into cars to get food people had left behind. That meant that bears and humans were getting too close for comfort.
A NEW DIET PLAN
To try to get the bears to kick their bad habits, Yosemite closed the last of its feeding stations in 1971. But after nearly 50 years of devouring human food, the bears weren’t as interested in their natural diet of grasses and berries.
In 1999, park officials tried another approach to solve the problem. They installed new bear-proof garbage bins and gave visitors metal lockers for their food. The park also educated visitors about the risks of attracting bears with food.
A recent study showed that the plan has worked. It found that the bears now get only 13 percent of their food from humans, which has led to fewer problems between people and bears.
“Bears that eat natural foods exclusively are typically not in conflict with people and are at less risk of being killed by people,” says Jack Hopkins, a researcher who led the study.
This article originally appeared in the April 28, 2014 issue of Scholastic News magazine. To find out more about Scholastic News's great resources, click here.