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From the Wall Street Journal

Yosemite's Black Bears Are Choosing Specific Auto Models for Break-Ins
Report of  January 13, 1999


YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. -- When it comes to selecting small sedans, the bears here lean toward Hondas -- sometimes heavily.

Last year was a record for what the rangers call "car clouting." Yosemite black bears bashed and clawed their way into 1,103 vehicles, nearly six times as many as in 1993. They caused $634,595 worth of damage and gobbled up a great deal of campers' food.

But these bears are no indiscriminate brutes. Through trial and error, some are refining their tastes and learning to pick out specific models of cars they deem ideal for a good break-in.

Honda and Toyota sedans, popular among park-goers, are thus especially big with bears. According to 186 of the park's "bear incident" reports, these furry wrecking balls spent last April and May hitting 26 of their pet Hondas and 21 Toyota sedans, the No. 2 favorite. By contrast, the bears only messed with two Buicks and one Lexus.

They can't prove it, but rangers say this selection process appears to be deliberate. On May 6, Patrick Anderson of Santa Rosa, Calif., rose at 3:30 a.m. to find the right rear door of his Toyota Tercel four-wheel-drive wagon peeled down and a bear and her cub devouring the food in his backpack. He drove the semi-wrecked vehicle to the parking lot of a nearby campsite. There, he saw another bear pulling down the rear door of the same model Tercel. "It was uncanny," he says.

John Stobinski, a park ranger who spent much of last summer filling out bear reports, says the bears are getting more discriminating. Vans, he says, have become another favorite. One night, he saw a bear score a lot of food by breaking into a red Ford Windstar. Then for the next few nights, any other red Ford Windstar in the area also got clouted, food or no food.

Steven Thompson, the park's biologist, says mother bears are teaching cubs how to clout. A favorite technique is to insert claws just above the rear side door, then pull the door frame down to knee level. This creates a handy stepladder for the bears, which can weigh up to 350 pounds. Next, they claw their way through the back seat and into the trunk.

Mr. Thompson says clouting is an unintended side effect of the park's five-year campaign to get campers to stop leaving food out and instead put it in steel "bear safes" now installed at most campsites. The theory was that bears would go back to munching acorns and ripping open rotten logs to find termites.

Instead, campers decided their food must be safe inside their cars, so the bears adapted by learning how to tear them open. They have developed quite a few skills. To break into vans, they lean against cars parked alongside to get some leverage for bashing in the van's windows. Bears have also found that the bolted-on windows of some vans can be yanked off.

Campers who follow the rules can still fall victim -- particularly when they have a bear's preferred model. When the Tillquist family of Palmdale, Calif., arrived April 23, they dutifully lugged four coolers from their van to safes near their campsite. Then Karen Tillquist, her husband David and their two daughters went to sleep in their tent.

As she was dozing off, Mrs. Tillquist recalled that two years earlier, a convertible parked exactly where the family had parked their van was clouted. Just then, crash. She heard their van's side window breaking. "My husband threw a folding chair at the bear, but it missed and put a dent in the van," she says. "The bear simply went around to the other side and bashed in a second window."

Finally, Mrs. Tillquist pressed a button on her car keys, triggering the van's banshee-like burglar alarm and causing the furry visitor to slouch off.

On May 14, two campers watched a bear working a parking lot, first pushing in the rear window of a sport-utility vehicle, then ripping down the door frame of a Dodge sedan. Fearing for their own car, they called for help.

The park's biological technician, Kathryn McCurdy, answered the call. She peered up the tree where the bear had fled and saw a familiar face: It was Blue 26, a five-year-old male implicated in four previous car clouts. Each time, he was trapped and driven to a remote part of this Rhode Island-size park. Once again, he was back.

But there wasn't much Ms. McCurdy could do. Because bears who repeatedly clout cars are considered more dangerous to people, Yosemite once had a policy of "three strikes and you're out," which meant the bear was given a fatal dose of anesthetic. But the park deep-sixed the policy because, as Ms. McCurdy puts it, "it's a good way to kill off all of your bears."

The new policy is that a bear must be "responsible for a large amount of damage" before it can be killed, says Ms. McCurdy, who also functions as the park's chief executioner. In 1997, she had to deal with Bear 2061, who was clouting up to six cars a night. Worse, 2061 was teaching her two cubs, who later struck out on their own. All three were given fatal injections.

Last year, three more bears were euthanized and others may be headed that way when they crawl out of their dens this spring. There is Orange 35, who has learned to hit cars while campers are registering. And there's the bear who peeled two doors off Richard Walther's Honda on May 21, then carefully folded down the rear seat to get into the trunk, where he pushed a button to open a cooler. "This bear clearly knew what he was doing," says Mr. Walther, of Los Angeles.

The park plans to convene a committee to discuss how to get Yosemite's population of black bears -- estimated at between 250 and 500 -- to unlearn their new tricks. One possible solution is using packs of specially trained Finnish Karelian bear dogs to drive the animals away from parking lots.

In the meantime, park rangers worry about the park's vending machines. Says Robert C. Hansen, director of a private fund that has donated $1 million worth of bear-proof safes to the park: "Someday, they're going to figure out that they need to break into the grocery store in Yosemite Valley. That hasn't happened yet, but these are very smart animals."

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