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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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David C. Menges
(davidmenges) - F
Musings on 02/27/2006 01:19:09 MST Print View

Hunting? How does it help? Do the other bears watch?*

Booby traps (Paul, the very first reply): rangers plant them, hikers carry them, bears boogie. Makes sense - time to learn.

Hunger? "Oh boy, dog food!"** Same food every day. How do they do it? Gotta have some variety... And don't mention colonoscopies!***

Electric fences: I worked on farms. Pigs (smart) back up, start squealing and run through fence (they know it's gonna hurt).

Guns: I've heard bush pilots are required to carry big ones.

What, no polar bears? Google found defense advice: trip-wire or motion detector systems, air horns, and pistol-launched "bear bangers".

Fear? Browse to and read that "Kermode bears lived in the forest, apart from humans for thousands of years, and have lost the instinctive fear of humans". In Genesis 9:2 God says "The fear and dread of you [men] will fall upon all the beasts of the earth...".

Let's see, is it "with cougars play dead, with bears fight back", or the other way around? I know I'm going to get it wrong... Google says never play dead with cougars, but deciding what to do about bears gets complicated (possibly exceeding the time allotted). NPS summarizes it,, and Wikipedia on "bears" is interesting (it takes 36 beers for a bear to get smashed).

And yes, several webs said electric fences can be very effective.


* Lower numbers? Weed out aggressive bears? Evolve into wimps?
** Gary Larsen comic, a dog thinking as he happily watches owner prepare his food
*** I had colon cancer --> frequent colonoscopies --> no food for three days

Dane Burke
(Dane) - F

Locale: Western Washington
hunting bears? on 03/03/2006 23:05:03 MST Print View

If I break into your house, can I shoot you because you might attack me?

Killing bears for human safety is ridiculous...we are the ones voluntarily putting ourselves at risk by entering the bears home.

Humans aren't always the top of the food chain. Accept it. If you can't accept the risk, go hiking somewhere else. Don't take the wild out of the wilderness, there's so little still left.

Great debate.

Vick Hines
(vickrhines) - F

Locale: Central Texas
Re: hunting bears? on 03/04/2006 17:46:24 MST Print View

Ditto, Dane

T. Sedlak
(busotti) - F
Sleeping with your food on 04/21/2006 17:42:04 MDT Print View

The black bears of Yosemite/SEKI have not been known to have ever resulted in a human fatality. I HAVE read a story about a bear biting off the ear of someone sleeping with their food in the Rae Lakes area. It was this suggestion in the article that gave me a little concern. If you are a heavy sleeper the bear might have collapsed your tent/tarp as your wake-up call. Try finding your flashlight or defense spray then. This also could seriously damage one’s tarp/tent, too.

Last summer I did some backpacking in both SEKI and Yosemite. The required bear canisters were heavy. In the SEKI Rae Lakes loop area, notorious for heavy bear activity, only the Garcia backpackers cache was allowed, as bears had been getting into other varieties (though I’m suspicious that the other varieties weren’t being closed properly). Near a trailhead I was stopped by a ranger and asked to prove that I had a bear canister. The Ursack has received conditional approval for use there this year. If they do well they will receive full approval, or else be banned again.

Instead of sleeping with one’s food perhaps an acceptable compromise would be to put a bell or something noisy on the food, leaving the option for pepper spray deterrent if the bear can’t be scared off. It has also been suggested to me that pepper spray might be more effective than firearms. I’ve read accounts of non-fatal shots to a grizzly really *BEEP* the animal off… you’d better have enough time and aim to make that next shot fatal. But a wide cone of pepper spray in the eyes of the animal would seem to leave more room for error.

Regarding Timothy Treadwell: He apparently used bear spray and electric fences with good effect for some time. Unfortunately, his overvalued ideas led to him ditching these items several years before he met his demise. The accounts I’ve read describe that the attack upon him lasted some time, suggesting that his partner might have had plenty of time to provide a blast of pepper spray and then some.

John Reed
(johnwmreed) - F

Locale: Sierras
Bear Cannisters encourage bears? on 04/22/2006 14:56:15 MDT Print View

I do not defend bear cannisters, but they are a fact of life in some areas of CA parks, re: Black Bears. However, I have never heard anyone say:

"...sit back 50 yards or more and be patient"

When a black bear enters your camp you should immediately scare it off (rocks, yelling, jumping up and down, etc.) no matter what technique you are using to protect your food. Bears need to have a healthy respect for humans and their food.

Linsey Budden

Locale: pugetropolis
electric fences on 08/07/2006 03:55:15 MDT Print View

While I've never seen a pig do it, I have seen horses run thru (and break) electric fences after realizing it only shocks momentarily.

christopher reeves
(ionstram) - F
Just ordered a UDAP ultralight bear fence for SEKI trip on 09/19/2011 13:58:16 MDT Print View

So, this is probably (in fact I'm almost sure it is) overkill, but I'm doing the Rae Lakes loop soon as a solo trip and I decided to go ahead and carry the extra 3.7 lbs and set up a bear fence at night.

Hope it never gets tripped but it will help me sleep more soundly at night.

Now if anyone has ideas on how to make one lighter I'm all ears.

I'll post a review from my trip after getting back.

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Just ordered a UDAP ultralight bear fence for SEKI trip on 09/19/2011 14:14:33 MDT Print View

Yes, that is certainly overkill. Those electric fences are intended for grizzly bears, the dangerous ones. At Rae Lakes, all you may find are black bears, which are not that dangerous. Actually, they might be dangerous if they score your food and then you try to take it back.

Black bears do not want to confront humans. They simply want to steal your food, by any and all means necessary.

Besides, even if you have an electric fence, you are still required to store your food in a bear canister. So, you will be carrying an electric fence plus a bear canister. Good luck with that.


jerry adams
(retiredjerry) - MLife

Locale: Oregon and Washington
Re: Re: Just ordered a UDAP ultralight bear fence for SEKI trip on 09/19/2011 16:30:43 MDT Print View

If you have an electric fence, you may accidentally touch it and hurt yourself.

Just be careful peeing at night.

christopher reeves
(ionstram) - F
News at 11 on 09/19/2011 21:11:08 MDT Print View

I can see the headline now: "Hiker electrocutes self while urinating in camp at night"

bears on 09/20/2011 21:20:20 MDT Print View

With these horrible predacious bears, its a wonder any Native Americans even survived for the whiteman to wipe out.