Black bears, particularly those in the Sierra Nevada, have become "habituated" to human food. That means once they get a taste of it, bears want more of it—lots more—and will do just about anything to get it.
They often succeed. Why? Brute strength, persistence, surprising ingenuity and, crucially, the lackadaisical food-storage practices of humans. Wildlife managers remind us that such a dilemma is not a "bear problem." The real problem occurs when humans take a casual, indifferent approach to storing food.
A bear's food-stealing repertoire includes:
In many areas where bear-human conflict repeatedly occurs, use of bear-resistant canisters has been made mandatory. These locations include:
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, California:
Yosemite National Park, California:
Inyo National Forest, eastern and central Sierra Nevada, California:
Olympic National Park, Washington:
Food storage is a big deal at Olympic, where rangers view the issue as seriously as any of their colleagues in the Sierras. All of Olympic National Park is designated as a "secure food storage area." Bear canisters are required any place where food cannot be hung at least 12' high and 10' out from the nearest tree trunk. Here are requirements for specific areas:
Coastline: Raccoons are the threat here. Hard-sided containers like bear canisters are required on the entire wilderness coast (from the Hoh River to north the park boundary at Shi-Shi Beach). Standard bear canisters are the preferred choice; hardware buckets with tight-fitting, snap-on lids are an allowable option, yet when unattended they must be hung 12' high and 10' out, which is no easy chore. Soft bags are not permitted for food-hanging anywhere on the coast.
Interior: Canisters are required in the following areas:
Glacier National Park, Montana:
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming:
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado:
Adirondack Mountains, New York:
Denali National Park, Alaska:
Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska:
Gates of the Arctic National Park, Alaska:
The requirement can be a tough sell to backcountry visitors, who already face higher user fees and stringent quotas. Wildlife managers insist the move is necessary to frustrate bears that have made a habit of campsite thievery. They also hope to prevent younger bears from ever acquiring such an unnatural habit. If not, they say, more and more "problem" bears will be put to death—and the real executioners are humans who take a sloppy or unthinking approach to food storage in campgrounds or the backcountry.
Part of the drop can be attributed to human-bear management program launched in 1999. The park mandated that no vehicle (other than motor homes) parked within Yosemite may contain food. The park provides more than 2,000 food-storage lockers (crate-sized, heavy metal boxes) throughout the park where visitors are encouraged to place their food while parked.
Rangers routinely tell backpackers that traditional food storage methods in the wilderness (such as bear-bagging or counterbalancing food bags) are not failsafe.
This, they say, is not mere bureaucratic legal-speak. Black bears have grown so crafty, so bold and so adaptive to human food-hanging strategies that, unless you have access to a fortified "bear box" or bear wire in the backcountry, your food supply may be vulnerable.
"Once bears get introduced to human food, they get hooked," says Werner. "They will go to great lengths to find more. They'll even take up residency at 11,000 feet if there's a campsite nearby that consistently attracts people and their food."
Properly storing food in wilderness settings is not just beneficial to you; it helps preserve the lives of bears.
"If you lose your food to [a] bear, that may ruin a trip for you, but even worse is that you've helped make a bear grow bolder toward human food," says Sequoia's Michelle Gagnon. "The bear may become so bold that it finally has to be destroyed, and that's sad."
Using a Bear-Resistant Food Canister: Some Advantages for Humans
Shop REI's selection of bear-resistant canisters.
"When you go into the backcountry of a national park," Gagnon adds, "you're entering a place where animals are supposed to be protected. If you're sloppy with your food and attract them to your camp, you're altering their habits. People have a responsibility to deal with food the way they deal with waste. You have to minimize its impact."
Kate McCurdy is a wildlife biologist at Yosemite and the park's task force leader for its bear-management program. She has added incentive to use bear resistant containers.
"It's my job to kill bears that become aggressive toward humans and their food," says McCurdy. "That's not something I enjoy."
"I've heard people sitting at the grill in Tuolumne Meadows and laughing about losing food to a bear on an overnight trip," she says. "It gives them an exciting story to tell, but what they're really doing is changing a bear's behavior, and that's potentially deadly to the animal. Whenever I get to backpack, I've just learned to suck it up and live with a canister and the extra 3 pounds."
Increased bear activity on the Rae Lakes loop in Kings Canyon a few years ago forced Werner to impose an emergency canister requirement for hikers. "A few people objected vehemently," he says. "They said they had a right to make their own decisions about handling their food. People need to realize that the requirements are not to protect people and their food, but to protect bears."
McCurdy says Yosemite's bears are such quick learners that they now recognize canisters and associate them with frustration and wasted effort, not a reward.
"Our field crews began using them in 1991 and '92," McCurdy says. "We've tracked a well-documented learning curve in how bears deal with canisters. At first, bears would spend an hour trying to break one open. Over time, it got down to 30 minutes, then 15. Now it's becoming more common that if a bear glances at a campsite and sees a canister, it's going to just keep moving. That's encouraging."
Christine Cowles, a former public information officer at Yosemite, continues to monitor bear management efforts throughout the Sierras.
"We're seeing a lot more people willing to make the effort to store food correctly," she says. "A lot of that is due to rangers getting out and educating the public, explaining bear behavior and biology. Once the public understands how access to human food can lead to a bear's death, most people want to do the right thing."
By T.D. Wood
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Last updated: Tue Mar 05 14:38:13 PST 2013
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