The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 48: Keeping Bears Hungry

This is a supplementary transcript of our audio program. CLICK HERE to listen to the original program, and see the associated show notes.

Don't feed the bears, we're told. But keeping our food from bears has become kind of an arms race. This week on The WildeBeat; Keeping Bears Hungry.

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News from the WildeBeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is program number forty eight.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

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STEVE: When you ask people what they're scared of when getting into the wilderness, many will say, bears. But at least in California's Sierra Nevada, it's possible to keep bear encounters pretty safe. I visited the wilderness management office in Yosemite Valley last March. Tori Seher is a wildlife biologist in the National Park. She's in charge of human/bear management.

TORI SEHER: You know people are paranoid. They're scared to step out into the wilderness because, you know, there are these dangerous animals that might attack them... Bears are so tolerant of people. It's not to say that they're not dangerous animals. They are. They're wild animals. You need to respect them and store your food, and keep your space, but you know, you could sleep outdoors. You don't need to sleep inside of a tent. When I go out into the backcountry, I rarely take a tent. I always sleep right there on the ground. And bears may walk through camp, but as long as your camp is clean, and everything is put away, a bear's not going to drag you away because it smells a bit of your dinner on your hands or on your clothes. Now we're talking about Yosemite. We're not talking about grizzly bear country. That's a whole different thing. So we're talking about black bears here in Yosemite.

STEVE: We humans usually bring pretty good food along on our wilderness trips. That food is a lot richer and tastier than anything bears would find on their normal foraging rounds. In the Sierra, bears have always been the most difficult creatures to keep out of your food. Laurel Boyers is the Wilderness Manager for Yosemite National Park.

LAUREL BOYERS: I've been involved in wilderness management since 1976 and at that time we told people just hang it up in a tree, tie it off to the side. And watched the bears learn very quickly to see the food in the trees and follow the lines over to the side... It was very clear that they understood clearly the relationship to the bag up in the tree and to the line that was in a totally different direction and they went directly to the line, in a pretty short time. This was a very quickly-learned talent for them that spread rapidly through the bear population.

STEVE: In the nineteen seventies through the nineteen nineties, most of us were taught the double-hang, counter balanced method to store our food. You find the right rock, and the right tree. The right tree is one with a branch that is twenty to twenty five feet above the ground, and sticks out more than six feet away from the tree trunk. Now, that kind of tree is pretty hard to find, especially in many of the sparse forests of the Sierra Nevada. Anyway, you tie a rope to your rock some how, and throw it over your branch. It'll probably take you a few tries. But after you've done that, you put an equal weight of your food into two bags. You tie one bag to one end of your rope, hoist it up, and then tie your other bag to the highest point you can reach in the middle of the rope you just pulled down. You coil the remaining end of the rope on the bag somehow, and then use a stick or pole to push that lower bag up to match the height of the other bag.

LAUREL BOYERS: If the food was perfectly hung and perfectly counter-balanced, which frankly is counter to human nature to be able to do that, it's really -- it is hard to do -- not impossible but it's hard to do. It's a skill. That it did in fact protect your food... The problem with counter-balancing was that while it worked pretty well, the bears expended a significant amount of caloric output, or they burned a lot of calories, trying to get the food. So if they were successful, they got the food. If they were moderately successful they chewed up the tree, beat up the tree trying to get the food, burned up a lot of calories and finally got the food anyway. And if they weren't successful they did a significant amount of damage to the tree, burned up a lot of calories, didn't get the food, and so it was negative all the way around. It hurt the bear and it hurt the tree.

STEVE: So hanging food in a popular backcountry area wasn't really an effective solution.

LAUREL BOYERS: Bears are really opportunistic. It's a really good deal for them, the amount of calories in backpacker food is just unbelievable compared to them pulling grubs out of logs and you know eating grass and stuff, so if they chance ran into someone that was either not hanging their food properly, or there was a sophisticated bear that just happened to be passing through for some reason... and once a bear gets through, then you've created a junkie.

STEVE: Bears were learning really well how to get people's food. Here's Tori Seher.

TORI SEHER: I think the park just realized that people needed another option to store their food in the wilderness. You know the park used to recommend that people hang their food, counter balanced, and you know, we have some of the smartest bears in the country, and we had a lot of bears that learned to obtain these food hangs, and they would do it by climbing up the tree, pulling on the rope. The sows would send their cubs up the tree because they were lighter and they could walk out on to the smaller branches and get the food. We even had bears that learned the kamikazi trick of climbing up the tree and jumping from the tree onto the food sacks and onto the ground with them. So you know, hanging used to work here in the park, but the bears have become too smart and learn how to get that food, and I think the park just needed more options.

STEVE: In the nineteen nineties, Harold Warner, a wildlife biologist at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, began working with a manufacturer of produce a food storage container.

TORI SEHER: Yeah, actually Harold was one of the first people to work on that and work on approving a canister with the Garcia manufacturer. The black Garcia canister that the park rents. So that was one of the first canisters in the park.

STEVE: So because bears have learned so well, bear canisters are required for food storage in all of the most used backcountry areas of the Sierra Nevada.

TORI SEHER: Canisters are required within 7 linear miles of any trailhead, and above 9600 feet in the park. They're also required within half a mile of the Benson Lake area, and all the high Sierra camps. If you're not using a food locker.

STEVE: Tori says that some people don't realize that you need to put more than just food into your canister.

TORI SEHER: It's food and trash and attractants, such as, you know, anything with a scent. That's something else that people don't realize, is that toothpaste smells really good to a bear, and that toothpaste is food to a bear. Things like bug spray and deodorant, and soaps and things like that.

STEVE: But you have to open your canister when you eat. Some bears have figured this out.

TORI SEHER: Some of these bears have become quite bold out there, and we don't feel at this point that they're a threat to human safety or dangerous, but they will approach campsites, while people are cooking, and if they have food left out. We've had bears run through camp, and while they're running through they happen to grab something in their mouth and keep running off with it... Now if a bear already has your food, we recommend that you back off, because a bear will defend the food. But if you see a bear approaching your camp, yell at it. Throw small things towards the bear. We don't want to injure the bear, so we don't want people throwing stones at the bear, or rocks, but be aggressive, really yell. Get other campers in the area to yell at the bear. So many people they go out there, and they see a bear approaching, and they've never maybe seen a bear before. And you know one of the first things they do is everyone gets really quiet, people run for their cameras. And what that's doing, it's showing the bear, "hey, come on into my camp site. I'm scared of you, I'm going to stay quiet. I'm maybe going to take a few steps back because I'm scared of you." And that's sending the message to the bear, "come right in, take my food, it's OK." So ... it's OK to be loud and start yelling and... that's what going to save these bear's lives, is if they're taught or re-educated that they shouldn't be approaching people's camp sites.

LAUREL BOYERS: We've already been in that situation where we've had bears become too socialized -- they've had too many successes... And so what happens is that bear then associates people with food, and then becomes more and more and more aggressive. And while it's the bear's home, and it's their ecosystem and we have an obligation... to future generations... to keep these tiny islands of wildness as intact as we can, we're going to go in and rather than say, "No more visitors, you guys don't get to come because you don't store your food properly," we say, "OK bear, you're dead." And we go in and kill that bear... Each of us who go back there, and it's me too, it's not -- I'm not pointing fingers, I'm saying, every time I go back there, that if I am not absolutely immaculate and careful... to keep one of those magnificent animals from being killed, or socialized, or even rewarded, which isn't as big a deal, "oh I didn't kill that bear." Well, yeah, but you rewarded him, you started him, and again I'll use that drug-addiction analogy, you started him, it's like giving that kid a hit of heroine, you started him down a road that is very difficult to break, is intoxicatingly enticing for those animals, for that, to make that connection, and it is your fault.

STEVE: We'll hear more from Laurel Boyers and Tori Seher in a future edition. You can find links to information about protecting your food from bears, and download an extended version of this edition, on our web site.

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We're going to take at least a week off to spend some time in the mountains. Please check back in a couple of weeks for updates.

The Wildebeat is produced by Steve Sergeant for Effable Communications. Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. Please see our website for ways to support future editions of The WildeBeat. Contribute your comments to webmaster at wildebeat dot net, or call our comment line at 866-590-7373.

This has been The WildeBeat, program number forty eight. Thank you for listening.

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