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Publisher's View: Bear Predation (Commentary)

Do bear canisters reflect poor management policy and only serve to increase bear tolerance of humans?

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by Ryan Jordan | 2005-10-12 03:00:00-06

Publisher's View: Bear Predation (Commentary)

RIGHT: Daniel Feinberg views the massive expanse of Buffalo Meadows, north of Yellowstone National Park and home to healthy populations of grizzly bears and their food sources: huckleberry, trout, and whitebark pine. Photo: Copyright © 2005 Ryan Jordan Collection.

Backpacking in the most remote areas of the United States (Yellowstone or Alaska) is a humbling experience: you are not at the top of the food chain.

Indeed, there is some (small) probability that you will be the object of predation by a grizzly bear.

Picture this: waking up to the sounds of huffing, snorting, growling, and jaw cracking of a bear ripping through your tent intent on eating you. After consciousness slips away, the bear will drag you some distance and feed on your body (often starting in your midsection). Then, you'll be covered in dirt as the bear guards the cache - you - by taking a nap on top.

This is nonfiction wilderness in its finest hour, no?

Ironically, there may be absolutely nothing you can do to avoid the encounter. Good camping, food handling, and storage practices probably help, but provide no insurance policy against either avoiding an encounter with a predatory bear, or surviving one. Sometimes, in predatory attacks, it is doubtful that even bear spray and powerful guns can be deployed in time to guarantee survival.

Are we sensationalizing the terror of bears in the backcountry? Ask the families of Timothy Treadwell, Amy Huegenard, Glenda Ann Bradley, Kathy Huffman, and Rich Huffman. The common denominator of their existence: they have all been eaten by predatory bears in the past few years.

California wilderness parks make for good case studies of controversial bear management practices. The storage of food in so-called bear-proof containers (while the hiker is encouraged to sit back 50 yards or more and be patient) trains bears to be persistent and further habituated to the odors of human food. YOSE officials believe that keeping your distance will result in a lack of human habituation - an interesting notion considering that the scent of a human - and its food - dominates a bear canister and its hiding location. Through generations of so called "no-reward" training (somewhat of a fallacy, in light of the fact that all food storage systems have been known to fail at some level), our bear canisters may unknowingly be contributing to the habituation of bears to human presence. When bears are no longer threatened by humans - or their food storage devices - the risk of predation may increase. Are YOSE and SEKI time bombs for bear predation? California bears already recognize cars and coolers as food sources. An increasing number of reports suggest that backcountry bears know darn well what's in food canisters. Is it simply a matter of time before a shift in the fragile ecological balance of California's wilderness results in a dramatic food shortage that sends bears searching for food? If bear predation can occur in GSMNP, it can certainly occur in California.

Another option: keep a night sentry armed with a can of bear spray to guard your "unprotected food" - giving any bear wanting an easy meal a blast in the eyes that will send it coughing and wheezing for an hour. Negative conditioning works. Grizzlies in Yellowstone and Alaska have been known to stop charging at the sight of someone holding up a can of bear spray - or the the sound of the spray exiting the can - without ever getting a taste of it - a sign that it has been sprayed before. Bears that have been sprayed multiple times by hunters in the Yellowstone area have been known to keep their distance from humans and avoid them readily. Much to the chagrin of agency managers in Montana National Parks and Wilderness areas, sleeping with your food - armed - is more common than they are willing to admit.

UDAP may have a better solution: a 3.7 lb backpackable electric fence that can be used to surround your camp and/or food. Again, the focus is on negative conditioning: providing punishment to the bear for seeking a human encounter. Negative conditioning may be the only way that predatory attacks on humans can be minimized. All the best management practices for food handling and camping won't deter a bear that wants a meal bad enough.

Or, maybe in 100 years, after black and grizzly bear populations have exploded, wilderness has dwindled, and climate changes shift food profiles, we may simply be asked by YOSE/SEKI officials to camp only in life sized canister tents provided by the park service.

Think about it: AMC Huts, California style.

Ryan Jordan is the publisher and co-founder of Backpacking Light Magazine. His 2005-06 slide show, "Grizzly Style", presents an honest and frank view of backcountry camping in grizzly bear country, discussing the discrepancies between real practice vs. mandated policy by land management agencies. In addition, Ryan discusses the practical limitations - and consequences - of existing bear management policies by Montana and California land management agencies, with particular attention paid to the policies of Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Glacier, Great Smoky Mountains, Sequoia-Kings Canyon, and Yosemite National Parks. The slide show closes with a testament to the Great Bear and why its preservation is valuable to the health of American Society. For information on booking "Grizzly Style" for an event, please Contact Ryan at


"Publisher's View: Bear Predation (Commentary)," by Ryan Jordan. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2005-10-12 03:00:00-06.


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Electric Bear Fence
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Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
Electric Bear Fence on 10/11/2005 23:28:38 MDT Print View

Companion forum thread to: Publisher's View: Bear Predation (Commentary)

I had the opportunity recently to visit a demonstration of a portable electric bear fence. Yes, it's actually backpackable. This was a UDAP brand fence, as provided about 3.7 lbs, and enough to enclose a tent/sleeping area.

The fence concept is starting to pop up in various applications. In OR, they are using it on the Rogue River to protect food caches / storage at paddling camps. In AK, wildlife biologists use them to surround their entire camp. In MT, I've seen them used to secure stock animals while grazing at night. The latter is a terrific application: it separates the stock, safely, from camp, which is great news for backpackers and equestrians that share the same campsites. As a horse packer, it's nice having the piece of mind that your horses aren't going to be harrassed by grizzly bears when they are penned a couple hundred yards away from camp. This keeps the horse food where it belongs as well: far away from camp.

The applications of this technology could be very cool for grizzly country. There's been a lot of talk about brown/grizzly bear predation since Herrero's book came out a few years ago, and since Timothy Treadwell & mate were eaten in Katmai. A new and apparently predatory attack recently occurred on the Hulahula R in ANWR. Both of the latter could have been avoided by use of a fence.

After seeing the UDAP fence, it's first version is pretty amazing: it does exactly what it's supposed to do, and does it for a very light weight. I think you could easily chop 40% of the weight, but perhaps at twice the price (it's already at $300).

Edited by ryan on 10/12/2005 01:05:42 MDT.

paul johnson
(pj) - F

Locale: LazyBoy in my Den - miss the forest
Re: Electric Bear Fence on 10/12/2005 03:16:31 MDT Print View

good post and view/commentary. it's not surprising that the bear's rxn to the spray the first time (leaving & perhaps rubbing nose/mouth on ground) and subsequent times (recognition w/o the need for actually spraying) is identical to that of dogs & the somewhat common "Halt" product. dogs too learn from a single exposure to "Halt" and leave when the hand goes to the can of "Halt" or the can is raised and pointed. having owned, trained and cared for dogs (both mine & others), i have had numerous encounters with strangers unrestrained dogs when walking mine or friends' dogs.

this is probably, as stated here, a dumb idea and i'm not suggesting it for actual use as stated. however, it may be the "germ seed" of a better idea. for decades (maybe even longer) dog trainers have used both lemon juice or vinegar in a balloon to attempt to eliminate certain behaviors from dogs - digging being one of them. balloon is filled with lemon juice or vinegar, inflated, and buried (in the case of "digging"). dog digs it up; it explodes in dog's face or mouth; sprays dog & dog sometimes learns not to dig. some dogs are smart enough to learn the smell of the balloon and so will continue to dig elsewhere where there is no "booby-trap" - those cagey canines!

my point is, can anyone think of a way to do something similar with the bear canister? it would be sort of an outer "booby-trap". there is also the question of whether this deterrent would really work on a bear. i'm sure that noxious chems could be used to chase the bear away, but would it return? hunger drive is perhaps stronger than the digging drive.

not that the hiker has to carry the booby-trapped canister, but could such be used to educate bears that inhabit the area by the powers that be in that locale/park?

of course, this still leaves the human as the only available food!!

Edited by pj on 10/12/2005 09:41:17 MDT.

Re: Electric Bear Fence on 10/12/2005 08:27:22 MDT Print View

Ryan, I don' t see how it can be said with 100% confidence that this fence will stop a predatory bear from attacking. I'll have to look up some web info on it and read.

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
bear country on 10/12/2005 09:12:04 MDT Print View

The electric bear fence is a great new tool. It has been used successfully on courses for NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School).

It's easy to use. And outfitters are using it in greater numbers, it's becoming the norm.

Remember - we are visitors in the bears fragile home. The best way we can protect the bears is by being an immaculate camper in bear-country. If a bear attacks a person, it's gunna get shot. A fed bear is a dead bear.

kevin davidson
(kdesign) - F

Locale: Mythical State of Jefferson
Predatory Black bears? on 10/12/2005 10:23:18 MDT Print View

Ryan's editorial is very thought provoking but perhaps a bit alarmist concerning the possibility of black bears in the Sierra becoming predatory. I'm not sure
that our "conditioning" of the bears feeding behavior vis a vis our misbegotten tactics in keeping our food from their hairy paws would escalate to something so contrary to Ursus Euarctos americanus natural history.
I do agree, though, that we must take a different tact in how we interact with the Ursine bores. And it certainly isn't bear canisters.

Edited by kdesign on 10/12/2005 10:24:13 MDT.

William Webber
(micwebbpl) - F
Shoot the Damn Bears on 10/12/2005 10:35:07 MDT Print View

I'm not a hunter, and am fairly pacifist, but maybe we ought to think about hunting bears once in a while. They are losing all fear of people.

David Lewis
(davidlewis) - MLife

Locale: Nova Scotia, Canada
Re: Shoot the Damn Bears on 10/12/2005 10:43:35 MDT Print View

Kevin: I assumed the editorial was talking about Grizzlies.

William: I haven't looked for the news myself, but I heard through the grapevine that there was a lethal black bear attack in Ontario recently and the talk is that the black bears (which as we all know almost never attack) are no longer afraid of humans due to a hunting ban. Again though... I stress... I did not research these reports and theories myself... it's just talk. Maybe someone else knows the true story.

p.s. Just did a quick google search. It's a true story. Here's the link...

Fatal bear attack renews calls for bear hunt

Edited by davidlewis on 10/12/2005 10:56:41 MDT.

kevin davidson
(kdesign) - F

Locale: Mythical State of Jefferson
Big Bad Bears on 10/12/2005 10:54:56 MDT Print View

David-- Ryan muses about black bears as well. read again.
re. Ontario bear attack--- there seem to be be behavioral differences between Eastern and Western populations of Black Bears. I have heard of attacks in Pennsylvania (in years past), as well. But were they predatory?

David Lewis
(davidlewis) - MLife

Locale: Nova Scotia, Canada
Re: Big Bad Bears on 10/12/2005 11:02:52 MDT Print View

Kevin: Ya... I only read thru the editorial once this morning... over breakfast. I'll re-read.

I guess Ontario would be considered Eastern. The article doesn't provide any details as to what led to the attack... i.e. if they accidently surprised the bear or if it was actually on the prowl. It does say that the same bear approached another hiker about 30 mins. before the fatal attack though, so it sounds like it was predatory.

I'm in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia BTW... on the eastern seaboard. We have black bears here of course... but there has never been a recorded incident of a fatal black bear attack in NS.

Edited by davidlewis on 10/12/2005 11:03:38 MDT.

Karen Allanson
(karen) - F
Odor-proof bags on 10/12/2005 11:33:21 MDT Print View

What about using odor-proof bags in canisters and other food protection devices (ie, Ursacks)? Have bears attacked food canisters using odor-proof bags? My own experience is that neither Ursacks nor canisters are disturbed when I used those bags to contain my food.

Kenneth Knight
(kenknight) - MLife

Locale: SE Michigan
Canada bear attacks on 10/12/2005 15:48:47 MDT Print View

Yes, a fatal black bear attack did take place in Ontario last month. There have also been a handful of black bear attacks that resulted in injury throughout the summer in Ontario and Alberta. Some of the attacks were fended off without injury.

There was also, if I recall correctly, a fatal bear attack in Pennsylvania in June but I'm not going to take the time to do the serach to confirm the details.

The point: black bears and grizzly bears both can pose a threat. I'm not sure it's too the point where I feel I must carry bear spray in places like GSMNP or New Jersey (the rules on bear spray in Canada are different; last I checked I could not bring it across the border).

R Alsborg
(FastWalker) - MLife

Locale: Southwest
Re: Canada bear attacks on 10/12/2005 16:11:07 MDT Print View


Do you think Bear spray would act as a deterrent on the Jersey Devil?

Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
bear attacks on 10/12/2005 16:25:28 MDT Print View

From the report of the Ontario fatality, posted above:

"While there has been an increase in bear sightings, the ones that attack and kill are almost all in remote areas."

The attack on the hulahula river in ANWR was really surprising to me. This was a healthy, young, bear. The argument posed in the article was that hunting could curtail bear predation by instilling fear in bears. I'm all for bear hunting, but I'm not convinced I buy that argument.

The research I've done leads me to believe that some bears are "bad" bears (I use this term loosely, only to refer to a bear that might have predatory tendencies towards a human). Increasing human presence in remote areas may simply be increasing the probability that a human will encounter a bear that wants to eat them? Is it just statistics?

One thing I don't think a lot of people (especially tourists and frontcountry visitors, or uninformed backountry visitors) realize is the extent to which a bear will seek food.

The urge for putting on fat is tremendous, especially in the late season. Having shot an elk and defended the gut pile from a grizzly, and firing warning shots until our rounds were gone and still having the bear circle us is a freaky experience. Only bear spray kept it at bay - temporarily. In two hours, the bear was back. It really wanted the food. It's very scary, to see a bear in a predatory mode.

I was camping just outside of Yellowstone in 2003 and a griz came into camp in the middle of the night and began circling our tents. It grabbed a pack and ripped it open. We exited our shelters, sprayed the bear, and it left - for about an hour. By then we had packed up. The bear came into camp just as we finished packing, but there was still one tent up. We left the tent and began hiking away from camp. The bear ambled over to the tent and shredded it. It ate some of the fabric and chewed on the poles. This was a healthy looking bear and certainly did not appear malnourished. But, we were told that the huckleberry and whitebark pine crops were doing poorly in this area, and food was in very short supply. We did not cook in camp - we'd cooked 2 hours earlier up the trail. We weren't even camped on the trail: this was a great stealth camp, located about 1/3 mile from the main trail, completely in the middle of the woods: no game trails, no creek waterways, nothing that would indicate a "bear trail". We hung our food, toiletries, cooking gear, all back on the trail 1/3 mile away. Crazy.

Thanks for the comments, all, on the editorial. It was intended to provoke thought. I hope the forum continues to do so.

Tom Kirchner
(ouzel) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest/Sierra
Likelihood of predatory bears graduating from cannisters to humans on 10/12/2005 17:31:10 MDT Print View

I read Ryan's commentary with interest and also William Webber's(shoot the *BEEP* things). I have backpacked in SEKI for over 30 years and watched with increasing nervousness as the bears have become increasingly aggressive. There have been several incidents in the last 2 years of humans being injured by bears in the Upper Bubbs Creek area as well as Rock Creek/Mitre Basin. At least one bear has learned to bluff charge backpackers to get them to drop their backpacks and run. They have also learned how to open Bearikade and Bear Vault cannisters by sitting on them to pop the lid. The point being: The critters have lost their fear of humans and cannisters are not an iron clad solution. My fear is similar to Ryan's; sooner or later they will figure out that the mother lode is not the cannister, but the human. This is more likely if cannisters become really bear proof. When I suggested this to SIBG personnel they were cheerfully dismissive. Nonetheless, I tend to think along the line suggested by William Webber, i.e. an occasional hunt to instill a healthy fear of humans. Their first reaction when they see a human should be, for their sake as well as ours, to "get the hell out of Dodge". As anecdotal evidence in support of this idea: when is the last time anyone had a problem with bears in a national forest, where hunting is allowed? Not me.

Ken Helwig
(kennyhel77) - MLife

Locale: Scotts Valley CA via San Jose, CA
Bears on 10/12/2005 18:31:21 MDT Print View

In all respect. In SEKI the owners of the Bearvault were not properly screwing on the lid. If the lid is not screwed on properly then a 500 lbs bear sitting on it could easily pop it off. As for Bubbs Creek drainage. I too have heard reports of bears being pretty agressive towards humans. In some cases, from what I have heard, injuries did occur. I have hiked from Yosemite south to SEKI and have only seen one bear in my short time as a backpacker (7 years). The one I did see just walked away from our group and went about his business. I still will take my chances sleeping in the backcountry versus driving or living in the San Jose Bay Area any day.

kevin davidson
(kdesign) - F

Locale: Mythical State of Jefferson
Black Bear as future top of food chain on 10/12/2005 18:35:03 MDT Print View

You might be right, Tom, in there being a progression to something like predatory behavior--maybe not. I had not heard of any injuries from Black Bears in SEKI due to attempts at predation. That there were strong indicators in most (if not all) incidents of provoked action ( cub/ mother situations, dumb aggressive behavior on the part of the humans, etc.).

I would love to see the documentation of these incidents in one handy place.

This all being said, culling (of both species) may be necessary in places like SEKI or particular areas like Bubbs Creek.
I've seen some pretty onery bear action, myself, there in past years---although I've never felt personally threatened (nor have I lost food to bears there--or anywhere else for that matter). I've chased huge sows in the wee hours throwing large rocks and generally, making a spectacle of myself just below Charlotte Dome, above Bubbs Creek. I've seen poor attempts at protecting one's food --bad bear bagging in the pre canister days---and incredibly reckless behavior on part of some parties camped in the area. All which have contributed to the problem.

Too many dumb people, too many smart bears.
And a shame that I don't care for bear meat. But humans, I hear, taste pretty decent ;-)

Edited by kdesign on 10/12/2005 18:36:50 MDT.

Patrick Baker
(WildMan) - F
Re: Black Bear as future top of food chain on 10/12/2005 19:11:56 MDT Print View

Ahhh, Kevin, you just jinked yourself.

Humans taste pretty good !?

Hey buddy, sleep well at night !

Maybe its just me, but I feel like
the law of survival is me or them.

Same problem with dogs today (in society) is that they have lost a fear
of humans.

Our "human" laws will need to change to preserve the right of human life over animal life in ALL cases.

Perhaps the new face of the Supreme Court will get to address this issue.

Edited by WildMan on 10/12/2005 19:16:20 MDT.

kevin davidson
(kdesign) - F

Locale: Mythical State of Jefferson
Being on top of the food chain on 10/12/2005 19:34:48 MDT Print View

well, If we really are what we eat ( as the saying goes) than perhaps we should eat really beautiful people....

as for the rest---- huh?
sounds like you are going to make the PETA most wanted list, Wildman

sweet dreams

Edited by kdesign on 10/12/2005 19:36:47 MDT.

David Lewis
(davidlewis) - MLife

Locale: Nova Scotia, Canada
Re: Being on top of the food chain on 10/12/2005 19:39:07 MDT Print View

Patrick: It's working man... I'm getting more and more afraid of humans all the time! LOL :)

Ken Helwig
(kennyhel77) - MLife

Locale: Scotts Valley CA via San Jose, CA
bears on 10/12/2005 20:09:44 MDT Print View

agreed there!!! Remember all, WE ARE ALL VISITORS OUT IN THE WILDERNESS!!!