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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 humans...as 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 BackpackingLight.com.


Citation

"Publisher's View: Bear Predation (Commentary)," by Ryan Jordan. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/bear_predation_jordan.html, 2005-10-12 03:00:00-06.

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Tom Kirchner
(ouzel) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest/Sierra
Bear predation on 10/15/2005 18:51:51 MDT Print View

The discussion may or may not be far out of the box IMHO, Ryan. Recent events in the upper part of the Bubbs Creek drainage, between Vidette Meadows and Forrester Pass show an ominous trend. While no actual bear predation of humans has occurred, yet, there have been several injuries in recent years, and earlier this year Center Basin was closed to overnight camping due to extremely aggressive bear behavior resulting in at least one injury. And this is in an area where park rangers rigorously enforce regulations requiring the use of canisters. Bluff charging has occurred in this area. It seems to me that the bears, or at least a subset of the population is edging closer and closer to "the Line". I, personally, have avoided this area for years now in favor the remoter reaches of Sequoia NP, where there are very few people and even fewer bears, canister free, and so far unscathed.

Greg Vaillancourt
(GSV45) - F

Locale: Utah
Bear Predation on 10/16/2005 15:30:13 MDT Print View

Good article and comments.

I just want to add that Treadwell and his girlfriend were far from smart and did things that any bear aware person would not do.

Camping on a known bear path and singing to an advancing large male grizzly makes Treadwell my "Darwin Award" winner for all time. His girlfriend paid the price as well for his stupidity.

I don't blame the bear in this case.

Donald Horst
(donhorst) - F

Locale: Sierra Nevada
Bear Predation on 10/16/2005 16:07:47 MDT Print View

You certainly did foster discussion -- lots more interesting comments from you and others.

Re the areas I go, most are popular High Sierra areas. Many are higher than bears tend to go, but I read stories that bears have been moving higher following food sources [Our food? Us? <g>]. However, many of my campsites are in prime, habituated bear territory. For example, in 1996, I camped in the hardened campsite area just SE of the Muir Trail Ranch. Other hikers told me a bear was visiting each camp site every night [and probably doing pretty well]. There were plenty of fresh tracks. Canisters were not nearly as common then, but the bear ignored mine [the old 3 lb Garcia model]. On the same trip, I rounded a bend above McClure Meadow and came upon a big old bear sitting in the middle of the trail a few yards ahead, watching some horse packers setting camp across a small meadow. He seemed to be speculating on what he would find there for dinner. He moved
grudingly when I yelled about my superior right to the trail, but only went a few yards off and continued watching the packers. My point is that there have been plenty of habituated bears for many years, but they [most] seemed to learn very quickly that canisters were not food sources. By contrast, I was in Vidette Meadows in 1999, where they have the large, steel bear boxes. We were not bothered at Lower Viddette, but a bear apparently spent a long night trying to get into a box at Upper Viddette. Go figure.

I should add that I am definitely not a stealth camper. It seems to work fine for a small number of skilled campers, but it would be a disaster if everyone tried to do it.

The main thing that has struck me about your [and other's]canister concerns re bear behavior is that the same arguments seem to apply to ALL other forms of safe guarding food, except possibly negative reinforcement.

Hanging hiding, or otherwise protecting food seems to present all the same problems, except that the bears get a better ratio of intermittent reinforcement. This makes it more likely that they will persist in going after hikers' food. While we are speculating, which seems more likely to be POed, the bear that never gets food from people or the one that usually does, but can't get yours on a given night? Part of the Sierra bear problem is that much of our camping is at elevations where there are trees, but none large enough to hang food properly, so bears have learned to go after anything in a tree and many have learned to get even properly hung food.

Similarly, in Tom Kirchner's example of bluff-charging bears in Center Basin, bear canisters do not strike me as the obvious culprit. Tom, are you [or Ryan] suggesting that we make our food easier for the bears to get so they won't become frustrated? How about dropping our food and running if we see a bear coming toward us? <g> And while Center Basin is not really off the beaten path, it is not one of the most heavily used Sierra areas. Your post sort of suggests there is a group of bears that is becoming agressive there. True? Or is a single clever rogue?

FWIW, I just checked the Wild Ideas [Bearakade] website

http://www.wild-ideas.net/news/news.html

They claim no food has ever been lost to a bear, and have a picture of a September 2005 sign [supposedly from the Tyndall Ranger] describing an agressive bear NORTH of Forester Pass that has been opening Bear Vault canisters and swiped one person. Could this be the same story? If it is only one of several such bears, maybe it is a "trend."

My sense is the opposite of Tom's. Sixty years ago, when I first started camping in the National Parks and Forests, bears were MUCH more habituated and there were many incidents in the heavily used areas [car camps]. Back country bears routinely raided food, and they gradually got smarter as we learned better ways to protect the food. However, I have seen nothing to suggest to me that they are getting closer to "the Line" in terms of attacking people as prey, certainly not as a result of using canisters. Again, what alternative do you propose? We either give them our food, or we frustrate them a bit. And I don't think many bears are actually frustrated by canisters, at least not for long.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have my own agenda, and that is what set me off. I am anti the anti-canister movement. I have it from a usually reliable source <g> that some of the PCT through hikers and other ultralighters have been advocating ignoring the canister requirements. [I am glad to hear it you are not in that group, Ryan.] I am sure some get away with it without losing food. There is a problem [from the bears' perspective] -- so many hikers, so little time. However, it only takes an occasional reinforcement to keep the bears looking to humans for food. IMHO, the anti-canister approach is an anti-social effort by a small group who just don't care if risking their food has consequences for everyone else. It is a little bit like people who want to race their cars on the public roads.

But at least I don't think most super ultralighters advocate keeping their food in their tents [excuse me, "tarps"]. I actually encountered a Darwin Award candidate on a recent trip who asked my what my bear canister was. When I explained, she said she couldn't see the need for anything like that. She always kept her food safely in her tent. :-(

Don Horst

Tom Kirchner
(ouzel) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest/Sierra
Re: Bear Predation on 10/16/2005 16:56:14 MDT Print View

Hi Don,
Sorry if I was unclear about the bluff charging. It has occurred more than once in the general area of Upper Bubbs Creek-Kearsarge Pass on to Center Basin according to ranger postings at trail heads and White Mtn RS. Dropping packs and running is probably what the bears have in mind. Then they can rummage around for trailfood, etc. They have no way of knowing when they charge that the foor is in a canister. I am not suggesting that we make our food more available to avoid PO'ing the bears. That would only compound the problem. What I fear is that as the canister program becomes increasingly effective, the bears, deprived of what has become a significant food source, may cross the line and go after a very available and even richer food source-us backpackers. Speculation, to be sure, but the stakes are high so worth considering. I, personally lean in the direction of negative reenforcement which could run the gamut from some form of electro shock or chemical unpleasantness to periodically shooting a FEW of the critters to reinstill a healthy fear of humans that has morphed into viewing them as a food source down through the years.

David Bonn
(david_bonn) - F

Locale: North Cascades
Re: Bear Predation on 10/16/2005 19:19:00 MDT Print View

What it might take is closing a goodsized area (probably not a whole park or wilderness area) for a season. Sure some bears will travel elsewhere and make trouble there. Some will start living on natural foods again. Many will starve. Evolution in action.

It seems that the Sierras are kind of a uniquely bizarre area when it comes to human-bear interaction. There have been enough bears dependent on poorly stored food for so long that there are quite a few more bears than can be supported from native food sources alone (I've heard that in some parts of Yosemite they estimate that there are FIVE times as many bears as they would expect from available food source (except for hikers and campers).

Sure, there would be some enormous complaints about prohibiting camping (and possibly even day trips) for an entire year. But it would solve the problems we are talking about here. After that reasonable food storage techniques should be sufficient to keep the bears out of people's food. So predation should or would disappear as a risk.

Stephan Guyenet
(Guyenet) - F
Re: Likelihood of predatory bears graduating from cannisters to humans on 10/16/2005 21:54:51 MDT Print View

I remain sceptical about bears having more predatory behavior toward humans than they used to. I would need some statistics to believe it. I can easily believe that there are more bear attacks now than 100 years ago, but there are also many more people in the backcountry than there were then. I'd have to see how the number of attacks per backpacker has changed. Although there are cases of bears attacking humans to eat them, my understanding is that these are still pretty rare. Most attacks occur in places where bears are used to having access to easy human food. The bears become habituated, look for the food, and sometimes injuries occur in the process. I doubt bears are seeing humans as an easy new food source all of a sudden. Any bear that kills a human gets cement shoes anyway so I don't see how the behavior or gene(s) for it would be propagated.

Stephan Guyenet
(Guyenet) - F
Re: Likelihood of predatory bears graduating from cannisters to humans on 10/16/2005 22:34:29 MDT Print View

I remain sceptical about bears having more predatory behavior toward humans than they used to. I would need some statistics to believe it. I can easily believe that there are more bear attacks now than 100 years ago, but there are also many more people in the backcountry than there were then. I'd have to see how the number of attacks per backpacker has changed. Although there are cases of bears attacking humans to eat them, my understanding is that these are still pretty rare. Most attacks occur in places where bears are used to having access to easy human food. The bears become habituated, look for the food, and sometimes injuries occur in the process. I doubt bears are seeing humans as an easy new food source all of a sudden. Any bear that kills a human gets cement shoes anyway so I don't see how the behavior or gene(s) for it would be propagated.

Tom Kirchner
(ouzel) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest/Sierra
Re: Re: Bear Predation on 10/17/2005 20:08:07 MDT Print View

Hi David,
I think you have put your finger squarely on the problem: More bears than the natural environment can support due to readily available food from backpackers for the last few decades. What I am concerned about is what the bears appear to be edging toward as this artificial food source dries up as the canister/bear box program ramps up. Closing off a large area might be worth trying, but I suspect the hue and cry from commercial interests, not to mention the backpacking community would make it politically impossible.

Donald Horst
(donhorst) - F

Locale: Sierra Nevada
Bear predation on 10/19/2005 14:15:50 MDT Print View

I also remain skeptical, about predation becoming more likely and about more human food available to bears. There may well be more human food in the back country than there was in the 1950's, but overall, there was MUCH more human food available 60 years ago. People used to watch the bears chowing down at the garbage dumps. In the back country, I don't know the statistics. My sense is that trailhead quotas have kept the number of hikers fairly stable in recent years. Before quotas, it seemed like there were often more hikers than there are now. The number camping in the car campgrounds has certainly decreased since they started designating specific campsites. It used to be a free for all in Yosemite Valley -- crowd in as many campers as could find a spot to pitch a tent.

It also seems like the bear resistant garbage cans in populated areas and the improved protection of backpacking food must have cut the human food supply a lot in the last three decades. Does anyone know real numbers?

Maybe continuing with food protection and adding negative reinforcement would help. How about developing bear spray booby traps to attach to our canisters at night?

Don

And I was just kidding about the "drop your food and run" solution.


(Anonymous)
bear protection on 10/30/2005 09:10:29 MST Print View

I have done most of my hiking in Alaska where encounters with bears are very common. Over ninety per cent of the time grizzlies will run off once they become aware of your presence. I have been charged only once and it was memorable (no harm to me or the bear). My personal choice is to carry a pistol, .454 Casull, loaded with hardcast 330 grain lead slugs. A rifle is cumbersome and with a long sight radius no good at short range, a shotgun is somewhat better but too heavy. Ruger is making a short barrel version of the Super Redhawk in .454 casull called the Alaskan and which should be ideal for backpacking. As for lying on the ground curled up in fetal position to take the brunt of a bear attack, forget it. Recovery time from a bear mauling, if you survive, can take months of reconstructive surgery. Bears will go for the head and face so figure on some significant plastic surgery. To carry a gun is definitely a personal choice, one which I have made and I sleep better for it.

cat morris
(catt) - F

Locale: Alaska
video clip of bear fence tests on 10/30/2005 12:27:59 MST Print View

http://nols.edu/resources/research/movies/bearfence_xl.shtml

Edited by catt on 10/30/2005 12:29:35 MST.

kevin davidson
(kdesign) - F

Locale: Mythical State of Jefferson
re. video clip of bear fence tests on 10/30/2005 13:01:24 MST Print View

Cool! Now to reduce the weight of such systems. I suspect that before long it will be de rigeur for groups. Probably awhile before it becomes solo viable.

Tony Burnett
(tlbj6142) - F

Locale: OH--IO
Re: re. video clip of bear fence tests on 10/30/2005 19:43:02 MST Print View

Interesting that the video suggests using the fence to protect food *only*. Even though I've seen pictures of the fence around a tent before. Wonder how well it does against smaller critters, like marmots?

paul johnson
(pj) - F

Locale: LazyBoy in my Den - miss the forest
Re: Re: re. video clip of bear fence tests on 11/01/2005 21:47:01 MST Print View

NOT really about "fences", but about electricity:
i remember learning, many moons ago, in bio. class that many mammals have higher electrolyte concentrations in their body fluids than humans do. as such, they are more susceptible to the effects of electric shock. also, for example, to illustrate the higher electrolyte comment, even 110VAC can be deadly to some animals; rarely is to a human, unless the natural resistance of the skin is lowered through moisture/water. skin is generally 300k-500k ohms, IIRC - unless wet or sweaty, then can be 1/10 of those values just from a lot of sweat, or even less in some cases. [wish i had $20 for every time i've been shocked by 110 - i'd be able to buy all of the UL gear on my "wishlist".]

sometime electric training collars are used for some types of off-lead dog training (usually, but not exclusively, with "problem" dogs). the key issue there is getting the electrodes long enough to make contact with the dog's skin.

while it is essentially "non-ranged", i wonder if an electric deterrant would be useful, in some cases, against a bear? for example, caught in the tent, by a bear - bascially awakened in the bivy. in these close quarters, what would be better to use: bear spray or a "bear-stun gun"??? electric/shock deterrant = you wouldn't need to hit the eyes or nose with a spray; just make contact with any part of the bear's body. for other occasions, hiking on the trail, the bear spray is apparently quite effective and provides a good "ranged" defensive weapon. i would guess a BearTaze would be easier to miss with than a well dispersed spray. well, it was just a thought (i.e., a "bear stun guns" and bear tasers" or some such gizmo).

Bill Nichols
(electrobearguard) - F
Electric bear fence on 11/10/2005 00:47:36 MST Print View

Electric bear fences do work very well. They have been used in Alaska by the USGS bear biologists for 10 years now. Please check out my web site for more information on bear fences.

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Electric bear fence on 11/14/2005 23:56:58 MST Print View

If you just want to protect your food, a much smaller light kit could be made. A metal mesh bag suspended from a bush with poly line and insulators would do the trick. I'll bet once a bear noses a metal mesh bag and gets "bit," it would be reluctant to try again. Making bags with an obvious odor (could be pleasant to people) might even keep "trained" bears away by making the association.

There's no reason a bear can couldn't have a charger built into it.

Years ago my father had trouble with a dog in the neighborhood getting into our garbage cans and my father is an eletrician. He wired a fence charger to the can and insulated it from the ground. About 2am there was a big commotion and a large dog hitting mach 2 going down our driveway, screaming his head off. There was no need for a repeat lesson, but it did keep the raccoons out of the garbage too.

Battery operated electric fence chargers have been available for years, with many models under $100. The kits offered for RV's and cabins make snese, but a much lighter, more compact unit is needed for hiking. There is no need for all the stakes or even much wire if you charge a metal mesh bag suspended from non conductive line and insulators-- all you need to do is too create the electrical potential between two points that the bear can get into.

It still suprises me that we can't find some chemical that bears find distasteful. I'll volunteer my brother-in-law for testing if someone finds something promising :)

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Portable fence chargers on 11/15/2005 01:07:14 MST Print View

Check this out:
http://www.hallman.ca/2705.htm

I have an inquiry in about US sales. Note they recommend it for "protecting supplies from foraging nocturnal animals on camping or hiking trips
." Runs 4 weeks continuous on 4 D Cells.

paul johnson
(pj) - F

Locale: LazyBoy in my Den - miss the forest
Re: Portable fence chargers on 11/15/2005 02:36:04 MST Print View

Dale,

two excellent posts. many thanks. 4D cells...hmm...could do dbl-duty in my Binford 9000 Headlamp (aka "the portable lighthouse" aka Pelican 2660 headlamp).

it will deter rodents and restrains stock, will it deter a bear too?

BTW, i've actually worked with one dog (a sagacious Boxer) that learned to tolerate the pain of an electric training collar as it ran away to get beyond the ~0.25mile range of hand-held control/transmitter. After getting the dog to return (play posture trick), i dialed up the voltage on the collar. 2nd time the dog still took off (horrible yelping and stumbling - twice). i couldn't bring myself to activate it a third time. it was clear that it was not going to work, so why torture the poor dog.

my point is, that steel mesh sack would have to be strong enough that the bear couldn't learn that it could destroy the sack while experiencing one relatively short duration period of negative reinforcement.

oh...BTW...for testing purposes, can your b-in-law fit in a steel mesh sack?

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Re: Portable fence chargers on 11/18/2005 14:07:18 MST Print View

I did get a reply from Hallman and they will sell direct to US buyers. I have no connction to them and I haven't used the product.

http://www.hallman.ca/2705.htm

On the mesh sack, I was thinking of the existing bear-proof ones with the addition of the electrical charge. If it worked, then a bag with the electronics built in and a ground lead would make one compact unit.

On the brother-in-law thing, I wasn't considering a mesh sack--- something more like hog-tied with marshmallows stuck to him and the anti-Yogi chemical added. [grinning like a pumkin]


(Anonymous)
Question about battery life on 02/16/2006 22:30:19 MST Print View

How long do the batteries for the electric fence last?

My experience - I've noticed when I backpack in areas where bear hunter occurs, I rarely see bears and when I do they are always running away from me. In areas where they are protected, they seem to have little fear of me.

My closest encounter with a bear:
http://www.trailjournals.com/entry.cfm?id=70191
I think New Jersey had their first bear hunt in a long time in 2004.