An unexpected problem has developed in the world of bear-resistant food storage testing: The grizzly bears responsible for tearing containers to shreds are getting bored or depressed.
"With some of these containers, the bears are no longer interested in testing," U.S. Forest Service national carnivore program leader Scott Jackson told the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee meeting in Missoula on Tuesday. "For the metal cases that are bolted to the ground that they can't tip over and knock around, that's becoming more and more of a problem. They just lick the bait off the outside and leave them alone. The manufacturers are kind of left in limbo."
In a way, that's a good problem to have. Bear-resistant food storage rules apply to more and more places in the woods as both grizzlies and black bears add human food to their foraging plans. Next summer, floaters who win a coveted permit to spend a week on Montana's Smith River must pack their steaks and beer in bear-resistant containers.
Randy Gravatt manages the testing program at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone. His captive grizzlies, including the infamous Kobuk the Destroyer, have brutalized 425 containers in the past 10 years. Roughly three out of five survive an hour with Kobuk and his cohorts – the success standard for an officially sanctioned container.
"I'm impressed with the innovation and ingenuity of the developers," Gravatt said. "But a lot of manufacturers underestimate the power of the bears."
That's especially true for containers designed for backpackers. While many systems have passed the Discovery Center test, Gravatt said manufacturers now try to make their products lighter, easier to use or less expensive to build.
"They're trying to find the line (between convenience and survivability)," Gravatt said. "So they'll bring in six, eight, 10 versions of the same product."
On the other hand, Brian and Jane Robertson of Cody, Wyoming, have seen bears ignore their Robertson Enterprises front-country containers at the testing center. That proof of concept has helped spur a steady increase in demand for containers in campgrounds, recreation areas and picnic grounds.
"The last two years have been great," Brian Robertson said. "Ever since the Greater Yellowstone Coalition partnered with the Forest Service down here, it's made more funds available for guys like me."
Jackson said the nonprofit GYC has agreed to match up to $125,000 one-to-one with the Forest Service to install new bear-resistant containers on lands surrounding Yellowstone National Park. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem holds an estimated 714 grizzly bears and a considerably larger number of black bears.
Jackson said because the captive grizzlies have given up on those heavy-duty, permanent containers, the IGBC testing system has moved to a more lab-style testing standard in which welds and latches must survive mechanical stress tests equal to the force biologists know bears can exert.
But those containers won't work everywhere bears are. Grizzly bears can only dream of the power packed by a Smith River winter ice jam. A high floe in 2014 overran 11 campsites and scraped toilets and fire rings off their concrete bases. That seasonal obstacle convinced the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks that installation of permanent food boxes was unaffordable on the Smith.
While that problem searches for a solution, Colleen Matt at the Wildlife Management Institute debuted another tool at the IGBC meeting. She's been working on an interactive map that outdoor visitors can check to learn local bear-food requirements.
"By April, the map should be ready to show the food-storage rules for all public lands," Matt said. "It's the coming thing. Food storage orders are going to be the way we learn to live with grizzly bears, by keeping them out of our stuff. And we've really got to start with black bears. Think of the angler who puts his backpack on the bank and walks downriver, only to come back and find a bear has gotten into it."