FRESNO — Wildlife enthusiasts around the world can now follow the daily journey of Yosemite National Park's black bears from their laptops and smartphones, tracking the iconic animals as they lope up steep canyons and cross vast distances in search of food and mates.
Park rangers unveiled keepbearswild.org on Monday showing where select bears fitted with GPS collars are heading. The tracking tool, which pings the bears' steps from satellites, have already revealed surprises, wildlife biologists say.
"I think people are going to be blown away," said Ryan Leahy, a wildlife biologist at Yosemite National Park who leads the project. "It's our responsibility to keep bears wild."
A bear's location is delayed so people aren't tempted to track it down in real time, rangers said. But the tracking collars alert rangers so they can block a bear from going to a campground or parking lot in search of food.
The goal of the website is to draw in the public so they know to slow down while driving and properly store food when they visit the park's towering granite cliffs, charging waterfalls and abundant wildlife, including up to 500 black bears.
Yosemite attracted more than 5 million visitors last year.
Too often, black bears — many of which are actually brown in Yosemite — are hit and killed by drivers on Yosemite's winding roads. The website shows where 28 bears were struck by cars last year, many fatally.
The park has used up to 20 GPS collars for the last three years, learning that bears in the park begin mating in May, more than a month earlier than previously thought, rangers said.
Leahy also said that the tracking devices show that bears move more than 30 miles (48 kilometers) in a day or two, moving with ease up 5,000-foot (1,524-meter) canyon walls.
The Yosemite Conservancy has spent $1.2 million since 1998 to help the park manage bears. The latest project cost $279,000, rangers said.
The tracking technology and public website help rangers learn even more about bears' habits to protect them, said Frank Dean, the conservancy's president, and it raises awareness among visitors about what they can do to save bears.
"People love to see bears," Dean said. "Protecting them is something we can all do."
Yosemite's effort drew praise from Jesse Garcia, a black bear specialist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. He said it's important for park visitors to understand bears while in the animals' natural territory.
"You've got to give them their distance and always be aware, knowing that they're there," Garcia said.
This story has been corrected to show that the mileage conversion should have 48 kilometers, not 8 kilometers.