YOSEMITE — There are plenty of luxury cars and shiny SUVs parked in Yosemite National Park, but it's no surprise to federal officials that the humble minivan is the vehicle of choice for bears who want a midnight snack.
A study published this month in the Journal of Mammalogy shows bears break into minivans more often than any other vehicle. The study suggests minivans often are owned by families with children who spill food and drinks.
And, quite often, there's a stash of food in the vehicle.
"In my own family, we have a minivan and we have two children, so I understand how food gets into the vehicle," said Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman. "But it's not just food that attracts the bears. It's the odors, too."
And it's not just the food or odors. Researchers suspect these clever creatures recognize minivans and look for them.
Scientists were inspired to study the phenomenon several years ago when they noticed more windows pried open and broken on minivans in Yosemite than on other vehicles.
Gediman said he hopes publicity about the research will help reinforce the park's campaign to keep food out of cars and away from bears.
"Since 1998, we've had good success in getting bears not to associate vehicles with food," he said. "But that success has been waning a bit lately. Bear incidents have gone up this year compared to 2008."
What's the best advice for minivan owners who have children and want to visit Yosemite? Stewart Breck, lead author of the study, suggests steam cleaning the interior.
"I've got two small kids," said Breck, a carnivore ecologist based in the Fort Collins, Colo., office of the federal National Wildlife Research Center. "If we were going to visit Yosemite, we would definitely clean up the car."
Breck said he was working with park scientists studying black bears when they noticed the pattern of damage to minivans.
They examined vehicle damage statistics from 2001 to 2007 and discovered minivans were the No. 1 target for bear break-ins in most years.
Black bears notoriously raid trash cans, break into vehicles and steal food from campers in Yosemite and many other mountain destinations. They quickly learn where to find human food and teach the behavior to their cubs.
For more than a decade, Yosemite officials have put out a barrage of publicity about keeping food away from bears. In 1998, there were 1,455 bear break-ins and $621,000 in damage. This year, officials reported 459 problems and $64,000 in damage. The figures include all bear-foraging problems, not just vehicle break-ins.
But there has been a 17 percent increase in such incidents since last year. Officials fear people may be tuning out the message.
Gediman said people need to realize that bears must bulk up by eating up to 20,000 calories a day in preparation for winter. Human food has a lot of calories.
"They know they can get a pretty big payoff for relatively little effort if they find food," Gediman said.