WEST YELLOWSTONE - A few months ago, welding students at the Anaconda Job Corps Center had the ultimate excuse for blowing a test: A bear ate their homework.
Last week, however, they passed. Their homework beat the bears.
And not just any bears. We're talking Kobuk the Destroyer, the most devious and persistent can-cracker at the West Yellowstone Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center. And his buddy Sam, the 1,000-pound Alaskan brown bear whose CPR compression technique has caused heart failure in bear-resistant container makers all over the country.
"If they had opposable thumbs, we'd be in so much trouble," said Patti Swoka of Missoula's Living With Wildlife Foundation, which coordinates testing of bear-proof containers.
The bears at the Discovery Center test 30 or 40 containers a year, and they usually win. They've figured how to work their claws into finger latches, how to unscrew screw caps and, if necessary, how to tip over the concrete slab holding the container for a better crushing angle.
"If Kobuk could pass notes out to his wild brothers, we're done," added Swoka's teammate, Bill Lavell. "I've seen him work on something for half an hour and go away frustrated. Then he'll sit for five minutes and come back and - bang - he's got it open. It's like he just had to ponder the solution."
But the trash can "holster" the Job Corps students built left Kobuk and Sam hungry, to the slight dismay of Swoka and Lavell, who had to clean out the mess of sardines, chicken bouillon and Panda Express Orange Sauce they used for bait.
This story actually begins in the Flint Creek Mountains between Philipsburg and Anaconda, where six students at the Job Corps welding shop took on the challenge of defending their garbage. Their campus sits roughly halfway between the Greater Yellowstone and the Northern Continental Divide ecosystems - the two main redoubts of the Rocky Mountain grizzly bear population.
A grizzly rarely wanders between those two zones, but smaller black bears have been hammering trash cans around Georgetown Lake for generations. The Job Corps campus, with its 240 residential students and big cafeteria, was a hot spot.
"We trapped a lot of bears here in the last 30 years," said Fish, Wildlife and Parks bear manager Jamie Jonkel as he walked around the campus kitchen. "There was all kinds of good stuff - potato salad, beans, the whole nine yards. We tried electric fencing, but we had kid issues."
In the end, the Job Corps' masonry students built a garage-sized, three-bay shed for the cafeteria Dumpsters, complete with steel mesh fence doors. That's fine for an institutional setting, but not so good for a campground or someone's rural home.
Welding instructor Pat Conners had already worked out a popular design seen in many parks and campgrounds that puts a post-box top over a standard 55-gallon steel trash can. The top slides up and down on a cement-rooted pole so the can may be removed. It stumps raccoons and most black bears, although a determined bruiser can smash the can out from under the top.
Jonkel wanted a skeleton that could protect a bigger, plastic can from a bigger, tougher grizzly bear. If a trash can is too small, it can fill until the lid won't close - then it's no longer bear-resistant. If it's too hard to use, people will leave their trash on top - same problem. If it's too difficult to extract, trash collectors won't empty it.
So the Job Corps team of Kerri Rutherford, Amanda Denny, Yancy Wright, Jake Stevens, Shawn Cruikshanks and Cody Stewart took on the challenge. Wright had some experience with bear problems in Colorado oilfields. Workers there tried to protect their trash with metal mesh fences, but the black bears could rip them apart. Going up against a grizzly at least twice as big was going to require tougher stuff.
They started with a design that Anaconda Disposal Co. workers got from one of their customers. It looked tough. Maybe too tough.
"It was a struggle to lift the lid, so we cut down on the thickness," Stevens said. "It failed."
So did a second design. The third offering looked like a spindle-legged barbecue, with a square steel lid that fit over the plastic can. A framework of steel tubing gave it strength, while a locking carabiner latch offered security.
Beneath the simple appearance was a lot of careful measurement and quality control. Rutherford showed how an inaccurate cut could leave a big gap between the top and the frame, where a bear could get a leverage point. Much of the production time was spent grinding off sharp edges so tourists wouldn't need tetanus shots to get rid of their trash.
"We didn't powder-coat it," Cruikshanks said. "It's just black spray paint. We didn't want to send anything too fancy, in case it did fail."
They also figured out how to build in a gap so a person could lower the lid without crushing fingers, but a bear couldn't wedge a paw inside and crush the can.
"Everything we build gets tested somewhere, but we don't always hear about it," Wright said. "We just practice taking ideas from paper and turning them into reality."
Job Corps students apply for slots in the school, which also teaches masonry, carpentry, food service cooking, auto mechanics and other trade skills. They must be between 16 and 25 years old, and be willing to abide a strict work environment.
"If they want to learn a trade, we'll give them a skill that will take them through the rest of their life," said Conner, who spent 20 years as a welder for the U.S Forest Service before adding another 20 at the Job Corps. "They also have to get up on time, stay on schedule, manage their money, run a checking account, keep their appearance neat. If they don't have a high school diploma, we get them a GED. They figure for every dollar we spend on these kids, we get $1.60 returned to the economy."
In their heavy welding jackets and hats, it was hard to tell the men from the women in the class. Rutherford said it didn't matter to her that she was pursuing a rough-and-tumble profession.
"I'm going back to heavy equipment mechanics after welding," the Gunnison, Colo., native said. "After that, I'll graduate and go look for a pipe-fitting job, be a pipe welder somewhere. I'll probably head to North Dakota - they have a lot of welding jobs there. Or maybe Alaska - work on the pipeline."
The bear cans are more of a skills exercise than a product line, although the potential is there to make a lot more. That will involve standardizing the parts list, coming up with a price and simplifying the construction process. Job Corps products can't be sold on the open market, but they're perfect for government facilities like state and national parks.
"All the effort goes to a good cause," Jonkel said. "We train the kids, get these cans out on the landscape, save bears. If someone had $10,000 they wanted to donate, it can go to steel."
Can and holster loaded in his pickup, Jonkel headed south for the Discovery Center. The West Yellowstone attraction has been the final threshold for bear-resistant containers for nine years. Manager Randy Gravatt said the bears are so into their responsibility as testers, they get visibly excited when Swoka and Lavall show up. They know something new's going to turn up in their pen.
"The visitors really get a lot from this too," Gravatt said. "We get a lot of visitors from back east, where they think bungee cords on top of a cooler will keep a bear out. When they see one of our bears pouncing and working their claws and teeth, they realize our bears are a lot stronger than what they're used to."
The bear area of the Discovery Center is a rolling slice of mountain meadow surrounded by an electrified fence and a moat. Discovery Center staff rearrange logs and stumps and hide food or toys throughout the day to keep the bears from getting bored. The appearance of a trash can brings a special level of intensity.
The back of the pen has a concrete pad with rails that can bolt down a variety of Dumpsters and other receptacles. This is an improved version of the pad Sam once uprooted in his effort to smash a trash can. The Anaconda Job Corps holster gets bolted to the rails, and then Jonkel, Swoka and Lavall start smearing it with bait.
On this trip, Gravatt's staff have dug out nearly 3 feet of snow covering the concrete pad. The Living With Wildlife crew pours the oil from sardine cans along the handles and hinges, and roll the rest of the contents around the inside of the plastic trash can. Then they retreat back outside the electric fence and wait for the bears.
The grizzlies come out in shifts. Big Sam lumbered out first, pacing the back gate where the humans were prepping the can. At the ring of a bell, he returned to his indoor den for breakfast and the humans hauled the can into the pen.
Once the can and holster were bolted and baited, the humans exited and Spirit entered. At 350 pounds, Spirit is the small bear of the Discovery Center. She used to be known as Easy, when she was a trash-loving menace around Whitefish. FWP bear manager Tim Manley trapped her in 2002.
Spirit ambled straight to the trash can and gave it a good sniff. She licked out the bits of sardine around the hinges and gave it a couple of bumps, but quickly lost interest.
The bear resistance test requires 60 minutes of direct bear-on-can action. As Swoka put it, "60 minutes of licking" doesn't count. Sometimes, the foundation crew has burned a whole day waiting to compile the requisite hour of demolition.
They don't get much video out of Spirit. But then the bell rings for the main event: the entrance of Kobuk and his sister Nakina. These two were captured near Delta Junction, Alaska, as cubs when their mother was killed in 1998.
Trash cans are the grizzly equivalent of a hot new video game for Kobuk. After giving it a thorough sniff and lick, he concluded the snow pit around the concrete pad was insufficient for his 650-pound frame. Ignoring the can, he spent 20 minutes excavating himself a proper workspace.
Then Kobuk poked and gnawed every corner, hinge, gap, bolt and chain on the structure. He discovered the can inside the holster could flex, and went to work trying to squeeze it out of its restraints. That didn't work, so he went from side to side to side, pushing and twisting the metal frame.
Kobuk started methodically, but grew more animated as his gambits failed. By the time the feeding bell rang, he was on his hind legs, reefing away at the Job Corps frame. He tore off the panel where an automatic loader would grab the can, but that didn't expose the bait. He also bent the steel bar that held the bottom of the can in place, but couldn't free his prize. Lavall had 50 minutes of video to show the students the quality of their work.
But that left 10 minutes for Sam.
"He made a bee line right to it," Jonkel said. "He saw where Kobuk had done all that digging, and he did some more digging and got some leverage. Then he started the old bench-press on it. You could see movement, and I though: ‘Oh, boy - here it goes.' He bent it really good, but it's a tank. It passed. I gave the Job Corps the OK to start building them."