Yosemite: The Bears Are Hungry

Picnic time for teddy bears? The Yogi Bears of the '90s?

Well, not exactly.

Officials at Yosemite National Park are issuing strong warnings to visitors this year, as black bears scavenging for food are ripping through people's cars, causing thousands of dollars in damage.

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Last year, bears caused $500,000 in damage to cars. This year's heavy rains and flooding have pushed the hungry bears into campgrounds, where they have already run up a tab of more than $120,000.

With the first big wave of campers expected this Memorial Day weekend, park officials want to make sure tourists know how to avoid pillaging by the dexterous diners.

"The situation is made particularly worse this year in Yosemite because we've had a very long winter and heavy snowpack," says David M. Graber, a National Park Service scientist. "And the high country (that would otherwise begin to be available to the bears about now) is simply covered with snow, and there is no food available."

The 300-pound bears use their claws to tear off car doors, and will even break windows to get to the food inside. Park rangers are asking visitors to use the large metal food storage lockers provided on campgrounds.

"They recognize ice chests, grocery bags, and food packages," says Yosemite wildlife biologist Steve Thompson.

At a news conference Wednesday, Yosemite park officials displayed a tranquilized bear captured this week and said the looters are averaging three to four break-ins per night, including three on Tuesday.

Park officials have concluded that the only way to control human-bear contact is to educate visitors on how to properly store foods during their stay. The park concessionaire also is taking part, with posters, flyers, and shopping bags reminding visitors about proper food storage.

"The consistent message we're getting out is, don't leave any food in your car after dark," Thompson says. "Use a locker, store it in a secure building, or even throw it away, instead of storing it in your car."