Friday, June 24, 2011

Yellow-Yellow: Still Keeping Campers Sharp

Yellow-Yellow, a shy black bear with a yellow tag on each ear, became famous in 2009 as the one bear in North America who could open a food canister specifically designed to baffle her kind. She’s still at large, still popping the occasional can, but a truce seems to have settled over the Adirondack High Peaks.

The 18-to-20-year-old bear came out of hibernation this spring and continues to roam near South Meadow, Klondike Notch and thereabouts, reports Ben Tabor, a Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) wildlife biologist. Tabor will discuss black bears in a free lecture at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Adirondack Mountain Club’s High Peaks Information Center in Lake Placid.

Two years ago Yellow-Yellow was featured in a New York Times article complete with graphics illustrating her method of pressing the double lid tabs of the BearVault 500 with her teeth. (She could give this bear a lesson.) Tabor also fielded calls from National Geographic, the Colbert Report and documentarian Errol Morris. The bear’s notoriety has been a mixed blessing, he says. On one hand, she has done more to educate hikers about proper backcountry food storage than any human spokesman could ever hope to. On the other, when any bear steals trail mix Yellow-Yellow inevitably gets the blame.

The BearVault 500, meanwhile, remains guaranteed everywhere except the eastern High Peaks. “We have had no other issues with our product outside of [Yellow-Yellow’s] area, and we are still working on getting government approval of a new design to address her ability to open our product,” says Jamie Hogan, owner of BearVault, based in San Diego.

Yellow-Yellow beat a Bear Keg–brand canister this spring near Marcy Dam, base camp for many High Peaks hikers. The victim reported that he had closed the container improperly, leaving it vulnerable to any hungry bruin with a shred of ingenuity. Still, campers said the bear that cracked it wore two yellow tags.

A few other bears are nabbing rations in the Lake Colden–Marcy Dam corridor, Tabor says. (Males wander in and out of the area, whereas Yellow-Yellow is faithful to her territory.) They are opportunistic omnivores who have come to associate ropes, backpacks and little plastic barrels with dinner, but none of the current High Peaks roamers has shown any aggression toward people.

A Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) steward helps Forest Rangers educate campers on how to avoid bear encounters (don’t cook where you sleep, cook well before nightfall, etc.).

Tabor and the steward reconnoitered old Lake Colden bear haunts last week. “It is much better now than in 2004—no more bear trails, trash piles, screams in the night,” Tabor observed. That’s thanks to an educational campaign begun that year by DEC, WCS, the 46er Conservation Trust and the Adirondack Mountain Club.

The plan now is to remain vigilant, mostly about people. Forty percent of eastern High Peaks hikers are new to camping, Tabor says. Many of them show up at the trailhead without bear canisters, which is why education remains key to bruin-human harmony.

Photograph: DEC wildlife staff Ed Reed and Ben Tabor fit Yellow-Yellow with a radio collar, courtesy of DEC

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Mary Thill lives in Saranac Lake and has worked alternately in journalism and Adirondack conservation for three decades.

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