The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 54: The Story of Bear Cans, part 1

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

Bears are smart. Some smart people are working hard to keep them out of your food. This week on The WildeBeat, The Story of Bear Cans, part one.

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

This is program number fifty four.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

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STEVE: If you visit a wilderness area in bear country, you'll probably be advised, if not required, to carry and store all of you food in a bear-resistant canister. But that's a pretty new development. A hundred years ago in the Sierra Nevada, backcountry travelers would keep bears out of their food by sleeping lightly, building a big fire, and keeping their gun handy. But after the big national parks were established early in the last century, laws were passed to protect the bears that were left, and people had to learn new ways to protect themselves and their food from the bears.

HAROLD WERNER: Actually I think it probably started way back in the 1940s when we discovered that feeding bears was really not a good thing to do.

STEVE: Harold Werner is a wildlife biologist at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park.

HAROLD WERNER: I don't think it was really until I came here though in the early 1980s that we really got serious about putting the emphasis on trying to educate the public, and ourselves. Our own employees often needed to be advised on food storage. And we put on the emphasis on advising people not to provide any means or access for bears to get food.

STEVE: At popular backcountry campsites, they installed poles and cables to hang food from, or metal lockers. If you camped anywhere else, you were advised to hang your food in a tree.

TORI SEHER: The park used to recommend that people hang their food, counter balanced...

STEVE: Tori Seher is a wildlife biologist at Yosemite National Park.

TORI SEHER: 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: One option, it seemed to Harold Werner, was some kind of bear-proof container people could carry into the backcountry.

HAROLD WERNER: The concept was first developed by a contractor up in Yosemite National Park. And no-one really ran with it. Here at this park, myself and Mike Coffey started playing with the idea of trying to develop one that really worked with bears. We'd make these things, we'd take them down to the zoo and test them, and the bears would smash them up and come back and make some more.

STEVE: Those early prototypes were built by Richard Garcia.

RICHARD GARCIA: Well I own and operate a machine shop that we kind of specialize in product development. And in 1982 the rangers from Kings Canyon/Sequoia N.P., a fellow by the name of Harold Werner, and Mike Coffey, contacted me, and they had a concept that if they could develop a container to put the backpacker's food in, that would keep the bears out, it would go a long way in solving one of their problems that they were having in the backcountry... So they had and idea on how to make these containers. They wanted me to make some prototypes, and we built some early prototypes out of PVC pipe to their specifications. They contacted the Fresno Zoo which has a couple of large grizzly bears up there... And Harold would take the prototypes up there and put some food in there; some kipper snacks or sardines or something, and bring back the pieces. Actually the first 3 or 4 prototypes of their design that we manufactured failed. The bears were able to get in them. The bears were -- it even amazed me how powerful and resourceful they are.

STEVE: But Harold's persistence paid off.

HAROLD WERNER: Eventually we came up with some designs that worked pretty good.

RICHARD GARCIA: After that the parks decided to do some testing. Mainly I worked with a ranger up in Denali National Park, his name is John Dalle-Molle, and he was a bear specialist up there. And we built, I think -- I don't know, we built a 100 or so containers, and they did a study one summer up in Denali... I think it was about 1984 ... And the rangers wanted to not only test to see if the containers would hold up against wild bears, but they were particularly interested to see the behavior of the bears if the bears, say, were to become more aggressive, and if they couldn't get the food. That fortunately didn't happen. They also wanted to know if the bears would try to carry the containers off. That didn't happen. The bears would bat these things around but they wouldn't carry them off. And what was most encouraging -- they must have had rangers just sitting around watching these bear encounters, because early-on in the season where a bear might work on a container for 45 minutes over an hour sometimes before giving up, within a course of one season, the length of time the bears started -- would work on the containers started dropping pretty drastically. And what was even more encouraging is just the number of incidents of bears coming into camp started showing a marked reduction. So apparently the bears, pretty smart animals, they were saying, "Hey, these people are useless as far as getting food from, they're not worth bothering with," and they were leaving the backpackers alone.

HAROLD WERNER: Eventually we had a local machinist make 60 units, just to experiment with the public to see how well they would be accepted. And those units were loaned out on a voluntary basis with the public, and some people hated them and some people liked them. But as a result of that, some of the people were contacting us saying, "How can I get one of these to keep?" And we would send them to Mr. Garcia, and he would make them up for them. And eventually, he was getting enough requests that he started a business out of it, which became an expansion of his existing business as a machine shop. And, that's kind of how it started, it was largely by public request and our encouragement, and if it wasn't for Mr. Garcia we still might not have canisters out there.

STEVE: Richard Garcia started manufacturing his Backpacker's Cache in quantity. Love-em or hate-em, these black plastic bear cans kept bears out of people's food, and reduced the number of problematic encounters between backpackers and bears. The authorities were starting to require them in areas where bears had become a problem.

CALDER REID: The Inyo N.F. was the first forest to instigate a canister-required program in their wilderness area, and we went to Sequoia/Kings Canyon N.P. and asked them if we could form a group, called the Sierra Interagency Black Bear Group.

STEVE: Calder Reid is the wilderness manager for the Inyo National Forest.

CALDER REID: SIBBG was formed because we know that when incidents happen between humans and black bears, it causes thousands of dollars in property damage, it can cause human injuries, and of course the destruction of black bears. And the best way to right this problem was to make sure the bears didn't access human food, and we decided to create standards for food storage across a large geographical area, where these black bears roamed.

HAROLD WERNER: The one thing that did concern us here at the park is that we wanted to make sure people weren't selling things that didn't work. So we actually wrote our regulations in such a way to assure that any canister that was used in the park was park-approved, so that when people would come up with a new design and they'd send it to us, and we'd look at it and test it on black bears, and if it worked we'd approve it and if it didn't work we would reject it. And that got more formalized in more recent years after the forest service and the park formed a group called the Sierra Interagency Black Bear Group. Acronym, "SIBBG" (SIBBG), and that group was developed primarily to provide standardization in bear management within this region. So the people who were going to the Inyo N.F. didn't encounter different bear regulations than people going to Sequoia versus Kings Canyon or Yosemite. It's to help standardize what people were encountering in terms of requirements. And, one of the things that came from that is we found ourselves as a group approving bear canisters, so it was no longer just park-approved, it was SIBBG approved.

STEVE: And as we'll hear next time, the S.I.B.B.G. helped bring about an entire industry.

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Next time — part two of The Story of Bear Cans.

The Wildebeat is produced by Steve Sergeant, with help from Jean Higham, as a public service of 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 fifty four. Thank you for listening.

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