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Yellow-Yellow: Exploring the myth and reality of a notorious High Peaks bear

December 15, 2012
By MIKE LYNCH - Outdoors Writer ( , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

Cameron West was lying down in his tent on the side of Algonquin Peak just before dark in mid-June when he heard a bear moving through the nearby woods.

"She passed by my tent, within 5 feet," he said, "and I just kind of turned my head and watched her pass me."

West lay still for a few long moments, not wanting to startle the bear while it was close by. Once the animal got about 10 yards away, the 23-year-old jumped out of his tent. West yelled, then picked up a trekking pole and started banging it against a tree.

Article Photos

This illustration of Yellow-Yellow was created by Lake Placid artist Peter Seward after an article about the bear appeared in a New York Times in 2009. Yellow-Yellow died in October when she was shot by a hunter.

"I spooked her enough to get some distance but not quite enough to make her leave," West said.

Eventually, the bear had seen enough of West and began to meander downhill. Meanwhile, West was shaken by the encounter. His adrenaline was pumping.

"I wasn't sure about sleeping there that night," he said. "She didn't run off. She was just kind of hanging out."

Finally, West did decide to leave. But then a short way from his tent site, he ran into the bear again.

"What happened for the next 10 minutes is what I call a nice courtship dance between (the bear) and myself, a medieval courtship dance," he said. "As I walked down, I didn't want to turn my back on her, and she walked up so she didn't want to turn her back on me. With her in the woods, probably about 15 to 20 feet away, and me on the trail, we slowly just maneuvered ourselves. I ended up on the bottom of the hill, and she ended up on the top of the hill."

With a clear path ahead of him, West hurried out of the woods.

Later, after a discussion with a forest ranger, West determined that the bear was Yellow-Yellow. West had noticed that the bear had one yellow ear tag and nothing on the other ear. Those tags matched Yellow-Yellow's description, since the 20-year-old sow had lost one of her ear tags.


Yellow-Yellow mourned

Yellow-Yellow became a household name for those who know the Eastern High Peaks. Her reputation spiked after she was the subject of a New York Times article in 2009 that focused on her ability to open the BearVault brand of supposedly bear-proof food canisters. The article called her "a near-mythical creature in the High Peaks region." After that, references to Yellow-Yellow became commonplace in hiker forums, blog posts and among High Peaks users in general.

"Yellow-Yellow was famous, probably the most famous personality in the backcountry because people had read the article in the New York Times from a couple of years ago (or) they had encountered her," said Julia Goren, coordinator of the Adirondack Mountain Club's Summit Stewards. "They all knew about Yellow-Yellow, and every single bear that people saw they thought was Yellow-Yellow, whether it was or not."

This fall, her exploits were again relived all over the Internet and in news reports. This time, however, it was because she had been shot and killed by a hunter in the foothills of the Jay Mountain Range. The incident was perfectly legal and occurred on Oct. 21, during bear season. Still, some people felt a loss at her departure.

Jamie Hogan, owner of BearVault, called the bear's death "sad."

"She's a very unique bear, and that's what evolution is all about: The superior hunter, the superior intellect bear succeeds, manages to feed itself and procreate and have babies," Hogan said. "That's called evolution and it's kind of shame that it ended."


Problems in the High Peaks

While Yellow-Yellow was frequently portrayed in a positive light because many perceived her as being smart, the origins of her story come from an ugly time for bear management and bear conflicts in the High Peaks.

Yellow-Yellow was first tagged in 2001, a year when bear encounters with hikers and campers were frequent. State Department of Environmental Conservation records obtained by the Enterprise in a Freedom of Information Law request show there were at least 165 incidents reported around the Adirondak Loj and in the Marcy Dam-Lake Colden Corridor in 2001.

"The situation is serious," DEC bear biologist Vance Gilligan wrote in an inter-office memo on July 12, 2001. "Some bears are going to die sooner or later, in the interest of public safety. ... The bears are now going into lean-tos with people sleeping in them, even without food in there."

The problem stemmed from campers not properly securing their food and garbage from the bears, which were eager to take free meals. Once the bears learned that campers weren't securing their food at lean-tos and campsites, the animals returned again and again. Not only did the bears become habituated, but they lost their fear of humans and were even reported walking through occupied campsites.

To deal with the situation, DEC mulled over different measures it could take to fix the problem. DEC officials considered electrifying the lean-tos with a solar-powered electric fence system, developing bear proof cages for camping areas, closing campsites, educating the public, marking bears with paint and/or ear tags, conditioning bears so they would regain their fear of humans and instituting a bear canister policy.

To make things more complicated, DEC officials were trying to manage the bear situation while recognizing that the intent of the High Peaks is that it's supposed to be a wild place. New rules had gone into place in 2000 limiting campfires and group sizes.

"I do not believe we should attempt to make this, or any wilderness area, safe and secure from wildlife," wrote Region 5 Wildlife Manager Robert Inslerman to his staff on July 13, 2001. "The approach to this problem has to be holistic and has to proceed carefully so as not to create the need or expectation that we are going to remove all problem bears. The current regulations attempt to stress the wilderness characteristics of the High Peaks and keeping bears in, not out, needs to (be) part of that ethic and philosophy."


Yellow-Yellow tagged

One of the first big steps DEC decided to take was to send in a team into the High Peaks to trap, mark and condition bears. In an Aug. 9, 2001, letter from bear biologist Lou Berchielli to other staff members, he described the multi-day trip that started on July 31.

Berchielli described setting up a trap at Avalanche Camps and then capturing a 100-pound female bear that got its front right foot caught in the snare. After its capture, biologists sedated it with a dart.

"There was no damage to the trapped foot," Berchielli wrote. "She was not lactating. A premolar was removed. The bear was tagged with two yellow ear tags (B1172 left, B1174 right) each with three inch streamers. The bear was shot once with multiple yellow pinballs marking its left hip and left side. Her body temperature reached 102 degrees.

"After 52 minutes, we reversed the drug and applied aversive conditioning. The bear was sprayed twice in the face with pepper spray; shot two or three times with rubber buckshot; chased and scared by one shell cracker shot overhead. She quickly left the area."

That first bear captured by DEC wildlife staff was Yellow-Yellow. She was one of two captured. The other was also female: Red-Red. The tags would allow DEC staff to monitor the bears.

"I don't expect that these bears will move out of their home ranges," Berchielli wrote. "I do hope that we restored/reinforced their fear of people and perhaps created some aversion to these sites."

Berchielli said DEC officials also spent a good deal of time talking to hikers and campers, and everyone they talked with "seemed supportive" of their efforts.

But the bear problem didn't get much better in the ensuing years, and Red-Red and Yellow-Yellow were found to be two of the main culprits.

In the summer of 2002, Red-Red was the subject of numerous incidents in the Marcy Dam and Adirondack Loj areas. She tore a kitchen window screen at the Loj, damaged two Adirondack Mountain Club canvas yurts, twice climbed into the bed of a pickup truck, raided campsites and stuck her head inside an occupied tent.

DEC tried numerous times and methods to condition Red-Red, but they didn't seem to work. One method was to bait food with powder that would make the bear sick, giving it diarrhea and making it vomit. That didn't work. Red-Red, Yellow-Yellow and other bears continued to raid lean-tos and campsites.

Things didn't improve in the summer of 2003 either. Campers still weren't doing enough to prevent bears from getting their food and garbage, and there were at least 170 incidents reported. That summer, Lake Colden caretaker Steve Langdon reported in a DEC staff memo that he collected 250 pounds of "bear garbage" at the Lake Colden campsites.

The situation took a new turn in September of that year, when there was a bear incident that required immediate action from DEC. A Montreal woman was scratched by a bear while at her campsite near Marcy Dam. The woman had been reaching for her backpack at the same time as a bear was, and the animal swatted at her, giving her a minor scratch on her leg. Luckily for the woman, the bear wasn't interested in her and quickly ran away.

That same night, that bear, which was identifiable by a scar on its shoulder, had been a problem at a nearby campsite. It had been staring down campers, apparently wanting their food.

"This behavior has been commonly reported by campers this year as the means bears use to get food," states a DEC incident report from that September. "The bears stare the campers down until the campers throw or abandon food."

The woman's minor injury and other bear incidents led the DEC to take action. Because the "scarred bear" now presented a public safety risk, DEC officials decided to kill it. They also had documented cases of Yellow-Yellow becoming too much of a nuisance and possible threat to human safety. It was determined she should be euthanized, too.

But a forest ranger and environmental conservation officer later had problems locating the two bears, according to a DEC memo. The memo speculated that a very large bear spotted in the Marcy Dam area may have kept the scarred bear away.

DEC's memos didn't indicate whether they found the scarred bear, but Yellow-Yellow definitely was able to escape.


Bear canister regulations

To avoid similar situations in the future, DEC knew it had to take action. For years, bear biologists had been recommending the use of bear canisters within the High Peaks. Within the next year, DEC proposed a new regulation that required Eastern High Peaks campers to use bear canisters. The regulation was eventually adopted in August 2005.

The DEC also started to monitor the bears more closely and initiated the High Peaks Black Bear Study, which lasted several years. Its purpose was "to determine the home ranges, seasonal movements, habitat use, and behavior of black bears in the area, and to develop a nuisance black bear management plan." The findings of the study are due out next summer.

In the summer of 2004, the first year of the study, bear biologists once again went into the woods to tag bears. This time, Berchielli was joined by wildlife technician Ben Tabor. Once again Berchielli captured the sow known as Yellow-Yellow. This time she was fitted with a large plastic tag on each ear and a GPS collar that would track her movements

This was Tabor's first year working for the DEC, and over the next few years, Yellow-Yellow and he would become very familiar with each other as he repeatedly captured her and several others as part of the High Peaks Black Bear Study.

Tabor told the Enterprise in December that Yellow-Yellow eventually began to recognize him.

"As soon as Yellow-Yellow smelled me or heard me, she was gone because I handled her eight or nine times a year for several years in a row," Tabor said. "She definitely was scared of me."

Other bears that were tagged around that time - mostly males - tended to run into problems or disappear. One bear, Red-Blue, was accidentally killed in a DEC snare trap in 2005. Another, Green-Yellow, disappeared after trekking all the way to Crown Point in September 2005

Another, Red-Green, a 350-pound male, was killed in July 2006 by DEC after three incidents of it going into occupied lean-tos. During one incident, it cornered a young boy.

Meanwhile, Yellow-Yellow continued to survive.

Tabor said the main reason she lasted so long was that she generally wasn't considered aggressive.

"It was atypical of her to enter a campsite when it was occupied," Tabor said. "She would kind of walk around the periphery and people would see her."

Part of that fear of humans was because she was a female, Tabor said. However, Yellow-Yellow was also hazed a lot with rubber bullets and other methods.

"That bear was probably the most hazed bear in the world," Tabor said. "She was probably engaged by our staff hundreds and hundreds of times."


Yellow-Yellow gains fame

Despite the hazing, Yellow-Yellow remained persistent in going after campers' food to supplement her diet of skunk cabbage, acorns, berries and other natural foods. But over the years, getting human food became more difficult for bears. In most cases, people were storing their food in bear canisters. However, that didn't stop Yellow-Yellow from trying. Much to the chagrin of forest rangers and other DEC staff, it was now part of her nature to eat human food.

As a bear that spent nearly all her time around Marcy Dam and Lake Colden, Yellow-Yellow had plenty of opportunities to figure out bear canisters. For the most part, bear canisters are bear proof. However, campers sometimes don't close them correctly. In these cases, bears like Yellow-Yellow are able to open them.

There was also one model called the BearVault that bears have had success getting into in the Eastern High Peaks.

"If you left that lid loose, she would get in it because she would get her tooth in there and finally peel that plastic off," Tabor said. "I'm surprised her teeth weren't more damaged, but PVC is pretty easy on your teeth, I guess."

Although DEC bear biologists believe that more than one bear is capable of getting BearVaults, Yellow-Yellow got most of the credit for getting in them in the New York Times article and among backcountry campers. In reality, the first model that came out in 2004 was opened by numerous High Peaks bears.

"The original BearVault 300 could be opened by Yellow-Yellow, Red-Green, Red-Blue and Blue-Green because we saw them do it," Tabor said. "We had them on photos."

Since that first year, BearVault has upgraded its design numerous times; however, tests conducted in 2007 and 2008 proved that one or more bears were still able to open it. DEC bear biologist Ed Reed said Yellow-Yellow was observed getting into a BearVault at Marcy Dam.

Tabor and Reed also believe other bears can get into the BearVault. Still, both pointed out there's little concrete evidence about which bears can open the canisters. Most of the information available on the subject is just anecdotal. Because of that, the DEC still recommends that campers don't use BearVaults in the Eastern High Peaks.

"It's a good story if she's a genius bear," Tabor said, "but I'm telling you right now that you could train any bear in the woods to open those canisters."

Yellow-Yellow wasn't the first High Peaks bear to be the subject of folklore. There are other stories, such as the one about "Tractor Bear," a large animal that roamed the High Peaks a decade ago or more.

Lake Placid resident Peter Seward was a hut master for the Adirondack Mountain Club's Johns Brook Lodge in 2004. He recalled that there were lots of bear stories circulating then. One of the tales involved bears getting to food hung on ropes.

"Someone said they saw a bear on a branch that was pulling the line up, looping the cord around its paw so it'd have a grip on it when it (was) pulling it," Seward recalled. "I don't know if that's true or not, but that idea was created out there."


Problems last year

Despite bear canisters being opened by bears occasionally, DEC bear biologists believe they have been largely successful. In 2009, Reed told the Enterprise there were only about 65 incidents a year with bears, down significantly since the early part of the decade.

The bear situation in the High Peaks is definitely better than it was a decade ago, although there were reports of bears looking for food this past summer in the High Peaks, possibly due to dry conditions depleting their natural food. There were more reports of Yellow-Yellow bothering campers. In August, a car window was broken by a bear, and she was reported to be in the area that day. Other people reported that she approached people on the trail. That led DEC to evaluate her situation, but Reed said wasn't aggressive enough to warrant being killed.

"She was pushing the envelope this summer," Reed said. "It didn't push it off the table."

Part of the problem with evaluating Yellow-Yellow's behavior is that she got credit for more nuisance complaints than she was likely involved in. That is, in part, because of the attention she received from the New York Times article.

"After that, every time someone saw a bear in the High Peaks, it was Yellow-Yellow, whether they saw tags or not," Reed said.

Tabor recalled an incident this past summer in which people told him Yellow-Yellow was causing problems again, so he went in to investigate.

"We rolled in there. We set five traps," Tabor said. "The second night, we caught a brand-new male bear, never been tagged, probably 5 years old, 200 pounds."

Some people are hoping that Yellow-Yellow's death will mark a new era in the High Peaks. In reality, next summer may not wind up being much different than other years. There will be a number of factors that come into play that will determine if more nuisance bears develop. Those factors include how much natural food is available and whether campers take care of their food and garbage.

Tabor said that a bear's death isn't going to solve any problems. If there's an attraction such as campers food, bears will keep coming back. When one dies, another takes its place.

"People think there's an easy out, and sometimes it's easy today, but it'll just be the same story tomorrow," Tabor said.



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