The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 55: The Story of Bear Cans, part 2

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 two.

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

This is program number fifty five.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

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STEVE: Bear canisters are required in a lot of backcountry areas. But who makes these things, and how do we know they work? Last time, we heard from Harold Werner of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Harold worked with Machinist Richard Garcia to build the first backpack-able bear-resistant canister. Rangers from a number of areas got together and formed the Sierra Interagency Black Bear Group, also called SEE-big, or SIBBG. Calder Reid is the Wilderness Manager of the Inyo National Forest.

CALDER REID: SIBBG's goal was to make things easier for the backpacker, and more efficient for the black bear, so that bears were not accessing human food, and traveling in the backcountry would therefore be safer for the public.

STEVE: In the year two thousand, the SIBBG established a program to test and approve new bear canister designs. Since then, new manufacturers sprang up. Harold Werner says the testing is more formal now than the early days, just to be fair to the newcomers.

HAROLD WERNER: So it has to be something that will be commercially available if approved. But we run it through a series of tests, where we drop a weight on it. And this is actually something we did in collaboration with the Interagency Grizzly Bear Team, 'cause they'd already worked out some physical standards... So there's a weight that's dropped on it... We do a simple drop test where we drop it on a hard surface and look for the lid to pop off, or anything else to go wrong.

CALDER REID: And we take the canister to a zoo in California, and we have black bears there who have to actively bite and claw and try to open the container for at least thirty minutes before it will pass the zoo test. We do put food in the container and we mimic the scenario that the bear would have in the backcountry when somebody's backpacking.

ALLEN DEFORREST: These 950 pound animals, the ones that we tested with, happened to be up in Fresno, California.

STEVE: Allen DeForrest is the managing member of Wild Ideas. They make their Bearikade canister out of aluminum and carbon fiber. Allen says the zoo test was probably their most anxious time.

ALLEN DEFORREST: And you would bring your candidate canister to the test. The bears would be deprived of food for two days. And so there you go, they're hungry. And they get one hour on your canister, which is loaded with chickens, meats, very aromatic food products smeared on the outside and inside as well... They're huge animals, and they mean business. The two that we saw they fought each other fiercely for the right to be the first inspector of the canister. And the male in this case won out. And rather than just use brute force immediately the bear... sat on his haunches and cradled the canister and slowly rotated looking for any weak points, an access for a claw or tooth, and very methodically and systematically examined the canister. And from there he turned it on its side for its weakest position and with paws in the center of the canister, lunged with his full body weight to see if he could break it. It was pretty interesting to see that it wasn't just brute force, but some systematic approach that he used.

STEVE: Wild Ideas had their ups and downs, but their approval came relatively quickly. Their product, after all, was a refinement of Harold Werner's and Richard Garcia's hard-sided cylinder. Tom Cohen of Ursack took a bigger risk with a more radical design.

TOM COHEN: Ursack is a... bear-resistant food bag, made out of bullet-proof fabric. And it's... distinguished from a stuff sack that you can hang over a tree, but if a bear got that sack he'd be able to rip it apart. In this case, he can't rip apart.

STEVE: And you have finally... achieved some level of approval by SIBBG on this. Can you talk about what that process was like?

TOM COHEN: Well it's basically been a 6 year process... but it really began when I invented the Ursack back in 1999 and went to see the bear ranger at Yosmite.... The early years really involved a zoo test, at the Folsom Zoo in Sacramento... So they sent me there, and we tested our first Ursacks up there with a now-famous bear named Fisher. Fisher was unable to get into the Ursack, although he tried for long periods of time to do so... But some of the wild bears did get in to those early Ursacks, and though we think there was only 3 or 4 of them that were compromised... SIBBG withdrew its approval, and basically banned Ursack in the areas where they had restrictions on what you could use... So in the summer of 2005 we sent them the new Ursack Hybrid to test. They again put it out in the wilderness, exposed it to bears, to determine whether they could get in. They found that they could not get in, they also ...found that bears were not taking the Ursack and carrying it far away. And they also found that food wasn't being squashed. So they gave us conditional approval.

STEVE: But even after a canister gains approval, it can just as easily loose it again if the bears figure it out. This also happened to Jamie Hogan of Bear Vault.

JAMIE HOGAN: We got the phone call from the SIBBG saying hey, there's a problem in the Rae Lakes Basin, an area in Sequoia, where there have been several failures. As it turned out, in the span of a week, there were 8 incidents of failures... The Rae Lakes area is the most popular novice hike in the Sierras. ...And we feel that a large number of novices led to a high incidence of cannisters not being closed correctly... What happened, was the cannister would be lying on its side, and the bear would come along and do what we all fondly call the CPR maneuver, and would put its forepaws on the side of the body and kind of do chest compressions, if you will. And the lid would pop off.

STEVE: After improving their user manual, Bear Vaults are back on the approved list. By two thousand four, the standards set by SIBBG were respected by wilderness managers well outside of the Sierra. Did SIBBG ever expect that they would be setting nationwide standards?

HAROLD WERNER: [06:15] We did not, and to this day we do not want to be in that position. Our objective from the very beginning was to assure that the units that were being used within the lands that we manage were adequate, and we quickly became aware that other people were adopting our standards, but that was never our intention. Unfortunately, it even affects sales commercially. Like, it's my understanding that REI will not carry a product that's not SEE-big approved.

STEVE: Allen DeForrest doesn't think he could succeed in the bear canister business without SIBBG approval.

ALLEN DEFORREST: Because the Sierra is such an important place for adventure... I would consider it a prerequisite.

STEVE: The market has grown from one, to five approved canister manufacturers. Harold Werner says having them widely available and widely used has made bears and people safer.

HAROLD WERNER: Years ago bluff-charging was a common behavior among our backcountry bears. They would run up to people acting very intimidating, they would drop their packs or sometimes even throw their packs at the bear and take off. Well that just kept rewarding the bears for bad behavior, and it created a situation that was potentially hazardous to the public. Sometimes these bears would charge right up to within an arms reach of the backpackers. That behavior's become scarce, after a decade of canister use. And while people still don't use all of their equipment properly all the time, the amount of food that's available to bears has gone down and so have the incidents have gone down.

STEVE: You can find out more about bears and bear cans, and listen to additional bonus interview segments, on our web site.

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Next time — Backpack Gear Test reviews tents.

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 five. Thank you for listening.

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