Syracuse University Magazine


Q & A: Rachel Mazur G'96

Bear Essentials

If you’re looking for black bear stories, wildlife ecologist Rachel Mazur G’96 has collected plenty of them: the darted bear that escaped capture, dozed off on a family’s tent, and snored through the night; the 450-pounder that stealthily moved through a crowded campground, unnoticed as it checked for food; and then there’s the overdosed bear thought dead, but revived by CPR only to sneeze all over its savior. Some of the stories are hilarious, and some have even led to great advancements in managing bears, but others make her cringe—such as the bear-in-the-trash tales that “are so frustrating because they are so preventable and often lead to a dead bear,” Mazur says.

As part of her ongoing quest to protect black bears and educate the general public about them, Mazur wrote Speaking of Bears: The Bear Crisis and a Tale of Rewilding from Yosemite, Sequoia, and Other National Parks (Falcon Guides, 2015). To research the topic, Mazur—who holds a master’s degree in environmental and forest biology from SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry and an M.P.A. degree from the Maxwell School, as well as a doctorate in ecology from University of California, Davis—interviewed more than 100 bear experts, sifted through mounds of research, and explored the history of bear-proof inventions with the goal of compiling a comprehensive history of lessons learned and proven solutions for managing the wily bruins.

Mazur has logged more than a quarter century with the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service. Included in that time, from 2000 to 2009, she oversaw the black bear management program at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Mazur is currently the branch chief of wildlife, visitor use, and social science at Yosemite National Park. In addition to Speaking of Bears, she is the author of the children’s book If You Were a Bear (Sequoia Natural History Association, 2008). Mazur spoke with Syracuse University Magazine editor Jay Cox from her home in El Portal, California.

Speaking of BearsWhat’s the most important thing to know about black bears?

It’s absolutely critical to keep food and trash away from them. They are hungry and curious, plus they have all these incredible adaptations to find and obtain food. They are also what we call “one-trial learners.” Once they learn it, they’ve got it, and we’ve all got a problem.

How did your interest in bears develop?

When I was a kid, our family [her dad, Allan, is a Maxwell public affairs professor] would go camping in the Adirondacks and get great views of bears, although unfortunately, it was usually at a dump. When I got to the Sierra, I’d be out hiking and see what was more like a big furry flash disappearing into the woods. How can you not be drawn to that?

What was it like running the bear management project?

It was exhausting. And exhilarating. I spent a ton of time talking to visitors, recruiting volunteers, raising funds, and chasing bears. I also spent a lot of time knee-deep in dumpsters moving trash around to make more room for more trash, which is not what I envisioned when I became an ecologist.

Can you describe the concept of “rewilding” bears?

Everybody wants to be able to take a bear that is already food-conditioned and somehow change it back to a wild bear. It’s very difficult for people to believe and accept that is almost impossible. Think of a child who has never had candy and then goes to a Halloween party and gets a whole bag of it—how are you going to take that experience away? You can’t. You can rewild a population of bears by keeping new ones from becoming conditioned to human food, but the chances of rewilding individual bears that are highly conditioned to that food are low.

Don’t feed the bears is such a simple concept, but why do people ignore it?

I think part of it is that some visitors don’t understand why the parks would allow animals to roam freely unless they are safe to be around and even to approach and pet. They just don’t make the connection that the park is trying to protect the animals and their inherent wildness. It is less of a problem in grizzly bear parks, although people have been known to approach them too, as well as large animals like bison.

I think for some visitors, approaching animals with food is also a very innate way to cross species boundaries. It’s how we reward our pets. It is how we create trust with farm animals. I think it’s a common form of reaching out to animals—and it’s a shame, because for wild animals, it is the worst.

Animals also get food from humans when the food or trash isn’t stored properly. They are on vacation and let their guard down and relax—often with a table full or drinks and appetizers nearby. If they’re in a group, they may think someone else is going to take care of it. Or that there is a low chance a bear will come to their site when there are so many others nearby. What people don’t realize is these bears are so quiet and stealthy that they will check every site. One time, many years ago in Sequoia, my boss and I followed a 450-pound male bear—a huge food-conditioned bear that had gotten tons of human food. We wandered around behind it with the radio telemetry, through a crowded campground, and almost nobody saw it.

They’re all very smart, aren’t they?

They are. And much of that intelligence is directed toward finding food.

As you worked on different bear management projects, did your interest in bears grow?

Yes. The more time I spent with bears, the more interested I became. They are fascinating animals to study and observe. But one of the things that really drew me to write a whole book about bears was I realized there had been a ton of piecemeal work tried by many, many people over many, many decades, but most of it had never been documented or passed on. People would try something and it would kind of work or kind of not work, but wouldn’t be written down, and the methods weren’t that clear. And people would just keep redoing the same thing. Even the most basic solution of having trash pickups in the evening, would be revisited over and over. I became obsessed with bringing it all together—figuring out what had been done, what worked, and then making sure it became known as a solution so it would be implemented.

Is there a common thread among the people you interviewed?

It would be easy to talk to thousands of people who have hiked in the Sierra and had a bear encounter, but I wasn’t looking for those stories. I only interviewed people who were involved in unique encounters or had unique roles in making things better for bears. So in the end, it was more than 100 people who very specifically, in my mind, made up a piece of the solution. I then crafted the story from the connections between all these pieces.

Can you share a couple anecdotes?

One of the old trail crew guys talked about how his crew had just taken a CPR class and were out working. One of the bear technicians working nearby had overdosed a bear and was about to declare it dead, when they realized what was happening. They rushed over and this one guy successfully performed CPR and revived the bear. But in the process, the bear sneezed all over him and completely oozed him with slime. There are also a lot of stories from researchers. One group was trying to figure out ways to keep bears out of camps using different taste and smell avertants. They got a whole bunch of lion poo sent from the zoo so they could put it around campsites and see if the bears would think a lion had marked off its territory and stay away. The work of setting it all out was painstaking and when it was done, the bear just came right back into camp. Meanwhile, the shipment guy was furious and insisted they never ship poo again.

In 1998, there were nearly 2,000 bear-human incidents in Yosemite and Sequoia, why such a high number?

It was a combination of things; it was the lack of adequate food storage—even though the park had attempted to bear-proof things, there was still lots of food and trash around. There were also many many bears around that were already habituated and food-conditioned. And then there were also some natural food limitations that year. It all came together to be a disastrously bad year for human-bear conflicts. Plus, the park had almost no staff to deal with it.

How has it been going recently at Yosemite?

This year, we are in the fourth year of a drought in Yosemite, and we are on track to have the lowest number of front-country incidents in recorded history. So I would say that is beyond successful—it’s phenomenal. Why? It is a combination of hard work and the sad fact that many of the severely food-conditioned bears are now dead. In other words, it’s not that we rewilded those bears; it’s that the other, naïve bears are now unable to get into human food and trash. And we hope to keep them wild and naïve.

Any information that surprised you?

I hadn’t realized how many bear-related tools had been invented in the Sierra. I knew the food-storage lockers and the canisters were from the Sierra, but I didn’t know the culvert trap was also from the Sierra. It’s like a barrel trap that you bait a bear to go in and pull the bait and the door swings shut.

What’s the history of the bear-proof canister?

Barrie Gilbert, a behavioral ecologist, was researching grizzlies in the Rockies when one mauled him, so he moved his project and his student to Yosemite to do work on black bears. His student, Bruce Hastings, did his research in the backcountry and became frustrated by bears continually taking his food. Barrie was thinking about the problem one day while he was watching TV and saw a lion try to bite into an ostrich egg. It couldn’t bite into it and that’s where he came up with the idea. He thinks this is hilarious and says, “Who says you can’t learn from watching TV?” Bruce carried the idea forward and got people involved who persisted in trial and error until they had a usable bear-resistant canister. By the way, Barrie did go back to studying grizzlies.

What if you startle a bear while you’re hiking?

They usually run off, but it’s important for people to know the difference between black bears and grizzly bears [Grizzlies are extinct in the Sierra range]. If you startle a female grizzly with cubs, they will attack in self-defense. This is the reason you should make noise, carry bear spray, and hike in groups of three or more around grizzlies. Black bears startle much differently. They usually either run off with their cubs or send their cubs up a tree for safety.

How good of a shot do you have to be with bear repellant spray?

Bear spray is designed to cover a really wide area. It’s recommended in areas with grizzly bears [such as Yellowstone]. And it stops them. Here, at Yosemite, it’s not allowed and there are a couple reasons for that. One reason is most of the black bears that people would have trouble with are food-conditioned and they don’t necessarily stop when they’re sprayed because they are responding to different cues. The other thing is we have a huge amount of visitors here, 4 million a year, and when people have used bear spray it tends to do nothing about the bear, but it gets on other people, so it’s actually more dangerous having people with bear spray than not having it. I have used it. We used to try it for aversive conditioning to see if it would work. I’ve sprayed myself many times and run through it many times—it’s kind of miserable. And the bears don’t necessarily stop.