The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 144: Bear Cans Revisted, 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.

STEVE: About bears, somebody once said, never trust an animal you can teach to ride a bicycle. So you have to be pretty smart to keep bears out of your food. This week on The WildeBeat; Bear Cans Revisited, part two.

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

STEVE: This is program number one forty four, an update of number fifty five.

STEVE: 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 S-I-B-B-G.

STEVE: In the year two thousand, the S-I-B-B-G established a program to test and approve new bear canister designs. This provided an opportunity for new manufacturers, and new ideas to enter the market. 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... 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,

STEVE: Calder Reid is Wilderness Manager for the Inyo National Forest.

CALDER REID: 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 nine hundred and fifty 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 they're ready to 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, and 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. So it was pretty interesting to see that it wasn't just brute force, but some systematic approach that he used.

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

JAMIE HOGAN: Initially we had a child-resistant, two-piece style lid, and we had some manufacturing problems that led to failures in the field, and the S.I.B.B.G. de-certified that model;

STEVE: Bear Vault went back to the drawing board a couple of more times to design a screw-on lid that was easy to use, but strong enough to withstand a bear. Still, some of the lids didn't fit perfectly.

JAMIE HOGAN: And so we had several failures in the Rea Lakes area due to that... The S.I.B.B.G. felt that what they needed to do was restrict the use of that canister in that area only... and so we did another redesign that removed the size variability of the lid.

STEVE: These three products are refinements 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: We make ...a lightweight bear-resistant food bag out of bullet-proof fabric. The fabric is Spectra, which the same fabric they use in bullet-proof vests and so forth. We also sell a optional aluminum liner made out of aircraft aluminum that prevents the food from being crushed.

STEVE: Could could you then tell me a little bit about your experience with the regulatory agencies and getting the approval for you product?

TOM COHEN: We've had approvals and disapprovals of various products over various periods of time, ...and that's always just wreaked havoc with our business because the fabric we use is so expensive and we have to buy it in such large quantities that it's impossible to plan what we're going to do from season to season if we're waiting for SIBBG approval on something. We had approval of the Ursack S-twenty-nine Hybrid meaning the Spectra bag with the aluminum liner... At the end of the season we got a letter saying, "Your product has been -- approval's been withdrawn. There were six failures and here's the evidence of the six failures,"... We didn't believe it and to make a long story short we have now sued them -- and not for money but to change their approval and also to hopefully get the input of hiking groups when they make these decisions and to follow procedures that should be followed when an agency makes a decision like this... it's gotten way too subjective and -- it's not serving the interests of backpackers.

HAROLD WERNER: We have two responsibilities to the public, or to the American people: One is to conserve the resource, which means protecting the bears in this case, because bears that get food usually end up being destroyed, if they become potentially dangerous. And two is to provide for human use. And we're not restricting human use when we require a canister. We're just saying that if you're going to use this area in this remote part of the park, you must protect your food from bears, and vice-versa.

STEVE: There are even newer ideas in the design of products to protect your food from bears. Josh Leavitt is a co-founder of Wilderness Solutions. Their invention is a product they've dubbed the Palisade.

JOSH LEAVITT: This product is a soft-sided bag that has strips of electrified material sewn to it with a controller that provides electricity to these strips in a pocket in the bottom of the bag... So when an animal, say a bear or raccoon, attempts to try to get at what's inside the bag, they have to handle it in some way...and at some point, they make contact with these strips and receive a high-voltage, low-current shock. At this point, we do not have approval from the Sierra Interagency Black Bear Group for the bag... the response we got in their decision was that... based on their visual test... it's very vague and just... really opinion on their part — that it was lacking enough surface area covered with electrified strip... We had done testing -- captive testing with Grizzly Bears a year prior to this inspection by them and, you know, knew that this wasn't an issue; we'd already been through that.

STEVE: The standards set by SIBBG are respected by wilderness managers well outside of the Sierra. Did SIBBG ever expect that they would be setting nationwide standards?

HAROLD WERNER: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.

JAMIE HOGAN: It's an interesting kind of two-edged sword, if you will; the federal agencies and the state agencies, they created a market for our products, but they also are checking to make sure that our products are working correctly to their satisfaction.

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.

STEVE: We'd like to hear about your experiences in bear country. You can call our toll free comment line at 866-590-7373. You can find links to information about protecting your food from bears, and an extended version of both parts of this show, on our web site.

STEVE: As a free, listener-supported service, we depend on you to help support our work. You can help by making a tax-deductible annual membership donation to our project. Membership levels start at sixteen dollars a year, and full membership is forty eight. For a limited time, become a WildeBeat member and get a weekend's worth of meals from Alpine Aire foods, books from Wilderness Press, access to bonus audio content, and more, as thank you gifts.

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Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. If we helped you get into the wilderness, could you help us do the same for others? Please, click on our support link and become a member. The WildeBeat is produced by Steve Sergeant, with help from Jean Higham and Kate Taylor, as a nonprofit educational project of Earth Island Institute.

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

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Next time -- stealth gear.

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