The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat editions 143 & 144: Bear Cans Revisted

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 edition of The WildeBeat; Bear Cans Revisited.

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

STEVE: This is a combined version of program numbers one forty three and one forty four.

STEVE: I'm Steve Sergeant.

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STEVE: If you visit a wilderness area in bear country, you might be 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. After the big national parks were established early in the last century, laws were passed to protect the bears that were left. People had to learn new ways to protect themselves and their food from the bears.

STEVE: Before I continue with this week's show, I've got a favor to ask.

STEVE: The WildeBeat is a nonprofit public service. Our mission is to educate, and inspire people to appreciate America's wild public lands. Our hope is that if you discover a wild place, explore it, and develop a love for it, you'll want to take care of it. We distribute these programs free to you, but they cost us real money to produce and deliver. That's where you can help.

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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 trying to put 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 Warner, 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 or so that they took delivery of the containers at Denali... 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: S-I-B-B-G 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, "See-Big" (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 See-Big approved.

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. 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 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. 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; ...So then the third generation we redesigned the lid to preclude that possibility by putting a support rim inside the lid that fitted inside the housing and would support the opening whenever a bear was jumping up and down on it; and that allowed us to get Grizzly Bear approval... And the manufacturing process on that lid resulted in some slight size variations in that lid. Sometimes the lid would close correctly; sometimes it would close on top of the locking bump on the housing... and there was a bear that took advantage of this during one summer; and so we had several failures in the Red Lakes area due to that. Now because these failures were, number one, user induced, and number two, they were not widespread, 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: Well, 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-29 Hybrid meaning the Spectra bag with the aluminum liner... [9;35] 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. 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.

TOM COHEN: I think SIBBG and the other agencies ought to act a lot more like the National Highway Safety Administration, which tests cars for crash protection but does not tell consumers that they can only buy the highest-rated S.U.V... The highway safety people leave it up to the consumer to decide what to do, and they at the same time I think set some minimum standards in terms of crash-worthiness... if the bear container passes the zoo test, that that's really all that needs to happen.

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: These agencies are there to protect the bears, not the manufacturers. The only reason we have any market at all is because these various agencies have required some kind of food protective devices in their respective areas to protect their food from bears. If there wasn't this requirement, none of us would exist'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. And no manufacturer likes to be told or have their deficiencies pointed out -- in them, but we're all in this for the protection of the bears and ultimately it results in a better product.

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: 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? Just 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, combined program numbers one forty three and one forty four. Thank you for listening.

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Next time -- stealth gear.

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