Black bear’s life, death story proves a cautionary tale at Sequoia National Park

SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK, Calif.

The female black bear known as L-13 lived her entire life within a wooded 1-square-mile area, a small swath of territory inherited from its mother and shared with a host of other forest creatures — most notably the 1.6 million tourists who flock each year to this popular national park.

She was likely born during the winter of 2007, one of two 10-ounce cubs in some secluded den near the park’s 7,000-foot-high Lodgepole camping area on the western slopes of the sprawling Sierra Nevada range. For the next year and a half, before beginning life on her own, the tiny cub learned to forage for the food black bears prefer: sugar pine cones, berries, acorns and green meadow grasses.

But somewhere along the way, the bear picked up a terrible habit that would crimp her chances for long-term survival. First, the bear lost its instinctive fear of humans, calmly pursuing its natural diet within view of park visitors. Then it made the final fatal association that would cause its demise: equating people with a free meal.

Between 2013, the year of her first documented run-in with park biologists, until 2015 when she was finally destroyed, L-13 was involved in a succession of scares and scrapes that escalated in potential danger to park visitors. Perhaps without even knowing, she instinctively experimented with how far she could push the system, how she could elbow aside these invading humans for turf that perhaps she felt somewhere deep inside was hers to rule as the assumed top predator.

For park officials such as wildlife biologist Danny Gammons, the bear’s life and death is a cautionary tale of what can happen when bears grow accustomed to humans; in a sense lured to their deaths by tourists who blatantly feed bears or become careless when consuming and handling food.

“For park visitors, 99 percent compliance of the rules regarding bears is not enough,” he said. “It has to be 100 percent for this system to work.”

In rare cases, hikers or campers in national parks are attacked, injured and even killed by bears. Far more common is another outcome: In that one, the bear loses, finally brought down by a bullet to the head or a lethal injection, all in the interest of public safety.

California is home to an estimated 35,000 black bears; several hundred live within the 865,000-acre contiguous spread of Sequoia &Kings Canyon National Parks. Each year, two black bears on average are destroyed after numerous documented efforts are made to deter their taste for the food humans eat.

Except in 2015, when the bear L-13 was one of seven put down in Sequoia. For Gammons, a bearded 35-year-old who grew up hunting in the mountains of rural Virginia, each destroyed bear is a failure of the national park system to bridge two seemingly opposite missions: maintaining a safe attraction for tourists as well as a thriving wildlife habitat.

L-13’s short life was a steady progression from stubbornly foraging in the human domain to becoming food-conditioned, seeking out fast food and snacks left behind by visitors.

“We want these bears to make it,” Gammons said. “But for this one, we could see the end coming from a long way away. And in the end, we failed this bear.”

Sequoia National Park black bears (Gabriel Utasi/Las Vegas Review-Journal)

PROBLEM BEAR

The bear L-13 was probably 5 years old — a juvenile that had not yet bred — when she bounded onto park wildlife officials’ radar.

In August 2013, tourists chased her from the Lodgepole campground, where she was foraging for sugar pine cones. By the time officials arrived, the bear had scampered up a tree.

Sandy Herrera, a technician on Gammons’ staff, knew the drill with potentially problematic bears. The goal was to hit the animal hard, so it would remember the encounter and realize that perhaps this was not acceptable bear behavior.

Herrera fired paintballs over the bear’s head to dislodge twigs and give it a scare. It would later be cataloged as L-13: the 12th bear (L is the alphabet’s 12th letter) to come to officials’ attention in 2013.

If this was tantamount to the bear’s first arrest, no red flags flew, not just yet. No presumed life of crime lay ahead. Over the summer, officials monitor numerous bears that have encounters with park humans. Some get the message and fall off the radar; others don’t.

Over the next two weeks, L-13 was repeatedly seen foraging at Lodgepole campground, near where some 100 park employees live during the summer months. At one point, the bear came within 15 yards of campers. Workers yelled at the animal, fired off rubber slugs and a pyrotechnic “banger round” to give the bear a clearer message.

By then, L-13 was a regular topic at the meetings Gammons conducts with his small staff. Experience taught officials that relocation of such problem bears was not an option; they either returned to their old turf or continued their bad habits elsewhere.

In mid-September, after another run-in between the bear and Lodgepole campers, officials decided to capture and tag L-13 to better monitor her movements. They set a culvert trap, a large cylindrical contraption Gammons calls “a giant mousetrap” with breathing holes.

The night before, they had placed sardines and food scraps inside and returned the next morning to find their quarry. At 110 pounds, the bear was still growing and officials worried a neck-worn radio receiver might eventually choke her. So they placed a small yellow receiver in one ear with a more-visible red tag bearing the number 55 in the other.

She kept returning to Lodgepole to forage and even began frequenting area roads, a rarity for bears. At this point, Gammons had begun to worry about L-13’s progressively bad behavior. In an email to staff, he observed that it displayed behavior common to food-conditioned bears. Although it had yet to develop a taste for tourists’ scraps, it was becoming a repeat trespasser at the campsites.

“You may or may not already know this,” Gammons wrote, “but this bear has no fear of people at all.”

As 2013 came to a close, Gammons knew L-13 would soon go down for winter hibernation. It had been a bad year for this impetuous young bear, and he feared for 2014.

HISTORY WITH BEARS

Over the last 100 years, the U.S. Park Service has learned some hard lessons about bears.

In the early 20th century, bear-feeding spectacles were considered attractions to lure tourists, according to Rachel Mazur, a Yosemite National Park wildlife biologist and author of the book “Speaking of Bears.”

In Sequoia, where Mazur worked before moving on to Yosemite, managers in the 1920s noticed that bears fed nightly at a garbage dump inside the park. Rather than discourage the habit, they moved the trash to a more central location and deemed it “Bear Hill,” a site that included bleachers and a small barrier where the public could watch more than two dozen bears forage. In Yosemite, bears fed on an elevated platform illuminated by floodlights.

“There were lots of injuries during those years,” Mazur wrote in her book, “but it was before society became litigious.”

By the 1930s, critics began the call to stop feeding bears as the number of human run-ins increased and more and more “nuisance bears” were destroyed.

“Mistakes were made,” Gammons said. “At one point, the parks people were killing predators such as wolves and mountain lions. But we learned.”

Over the decades, parks officials have fine-tuned their bear policy: In Sequoia, they began to remove all trash, rather than burning it inside the park. They also began warning tourists to respect the animal’s space, to keep food stored in bear-proof containers and to chase off marauding bears rather than queuing up for “selfies” and vacation-making pictures.

But the passion for bear-sightings still runs rampant in Sequoia and elsewhere. At the visitor’s center, one of the most-asked questions by tourists is where they might spot bears.

Rangers advise that even leaving food hidden in vehicles can bring trouble, attracting a bear whose sense of smell is seven times greater than the best hunting dog.

“People make seemingly innocent mistakes,” Gammons said. “But those mistakes add up and the bears learn from every one of them.”

THE END NEARS

For the first few months of the 2014 tourist season, the black bear known as L-13 was well-behaved, avoiding run-ins with park visitors.

But the respite from trouble would not last.

On June 9, the bear strolled into a campsite, past 30 people just finishing breakfast. The group took pictures but didn’t chase off the bear, which put its paws up onto the picnic table. Emboldened, the animal hit a nearby campsite the next day. This time, workers fired rubber bullets to send the bear back into the brush.

While the 2014 run-ins were fewer than the previous year, they were becoming more serious. The bear was becoming bolder.

By spring 2015, bear L-13 was a common site along General’s Highway, the main route through the park, often causing “bear jams” where motorists stopped for snapshots.

From there, the gravity of L-13’s escapades rose dramatically.

In July, the bear broke into several park bathrooms to salvage a few food scraps. L-13 had crossed a dangerous line.

“Just to enter a building, a bear has to overcome a lot of inhibitions,” Gammons said. “But for this bear, it was not a big leap.”

On July 26, 2015, park officials recaptured L-13 because its radio transmitter had fallen off. The bear was refitted with a GPS tracking device that gave an even more precise picture of its wanderings.

L-13 would wear the gadget for only 10 days.

FINAL DAYS

On Aug. 1, just five days after being fitted with the GPS collar, the bear was found inside a dumpster rummaging for scraps. The next day, L-13 disrupted another picnic, causing 20 people to flee in panic. Her reward: some potato chips and parts of a watermelon.

Two days later, she did it again.

In one video taken by a park visitor and posted on YouTube, the bear sits on a picnic table, gnawing on an unknown treat, occasionally pausing to look warily over its shoulder as children talk about taking pictures with the animal.

On the evening of Aug. 4, the bear walked into a cabin whose door had been left ajar. The occupants were cooking dinner and yelled at the bear, which was by now far too habituated to the shrieks and cries of humans. It turned and sauntered off, only to return a short time later for a second break-in attempt.

That move prompted technician Sandy Herrera to call Gammons about the uncomfortable subject now on everyone’s mind: It was time for L-13 to be destroyed.

Now 125 pounds, L-13 was a formidable force for any tourist. She had now repeatedly crossed the line park officials could not tolerate: she had begun to enter buildings. Eventually, someone would get hurt, or worse.

Gammons met with a small committee to determine the bear’s fate; eventually recommending to Park Superintendent Woody Smeck that L-13 be destroyed.

Once the approval was given, workers trapped the bear not far from the scene of its latest cabin break-in. Now came the hard part, the move no wildlife biologist ever wants to make.

Some bears are tranquilized and then shot in the head. Gammons, a longtime hunter who once killed a black bear in Virginia’s mountains, is a practical man who prefers the gunshot as quick and efficient.

But such outcomes must be delivered by park rangers, who aren’t always available. So, on this day, Gammons took a different tack: He injected a combination of drugs to anesthetize the bear; giving a double dosage for the shock that was to come.

Then he injected a lethal dose of potassium chloride into the bear’s heart. Within moments, L-13 was dead. The park workers labored quietly, not saying much, concentrating on their work. For many, the “what if?” questions would come soon enough: Had they done all they could to avoid this outcome?

Gammons is less philosophical.

“You have to remove your emotions,” he said. “You’re like a doctor trying to save someone’s life. There comes a time when you have to cut the cord, when you decide it isn’t worth the effort anymore.”

In the end, L-13 died not far from where she was born.

The bear was brought to a nearby wooded area and left for park scavengers, perhaps other bears. It was, as Gammons says, “a life returned to the system.”

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