With bear-resistant backpack containers showing up on Costco shelves, the challenge of keeping people food away from ursine raiders has gone mainstream. The photo of a certified bear-resistant cooler with its lid torn off shows how difficult the task is.
“That’s why it says bear-resistant and not bear-proof,” Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee spokesman Dillon Tabish said. “A huge factor in the health and recovery of grizzly bears is reducing conflicts, and the number one source of conflicts is almost always associated with food. The evolution of food storage orders and gear over the last 20 or 30 years has really benefited the bears. Incidents in the backcountry have dramatically decreased.”
Already in 2019, four grizzly bears have been euthanized after becoming food-conditioned in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which extends from Glacier National Park south to Missoula. On Tuesday alone, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks bear managers killed a grizzly bear north of Kalispell, and Glacier National Park rangers killed a black bear at Lake McDonald Lodge after each animal got into human food.
But each of those incidents took place in a residential area. They involved unsecured pet food, poorly protected chickens, and entry into an employee dormitory. Bears raiding tents and tearing up backpacks have become rare incidents.
“Most people who use backcountry are real savvy, especially experienced backpackers and hunters,” said FWP bear specialist Jamie Jonkel. “But you get someone living in a wild setting like they’re in the middle of Manhattan or Billings, right against the wilderness, and we have a problem. Bears who’ve stumbled in to a heavily watered yard, with goat feed and chickens running around — they’ve never seen anything like that and think, 'Oh God I’ve gone to heaven.'”
Around a thousand grizzly bears inhabit the Rocky Mountains of western Montana, while another 750 roam the three-state region known as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Montana hunters kill about a thousand black bears a year, evidence of the smaller species’ faster reproductive rate and habitat availability. Grizzlies are federally protected as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act and may not be hunted, although they can be killed for management reasons and self-defense.
As part of an effort to move grizzlies off the ESA and into state wildlife agency supervision, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee has been trying to reduce human-bear conflicts that result in dead grizzlies. One of the most successful tools in that effort has been food management. The group has an extensive advice page listing certified products and techniques for keeping bears and people safe.
But as the “interagency” name implies, setting rules for all the different national forests, state parks, private lands and recreation areas gets complicated.
“Each forest is a little bit different,” Beaverhead-Deerlodge spokeswoman Leona Rodreick said. “We’ve been working to find a unified forest order, where the food storage is all consistent, but I don’t think that’s happened yet.”
For example, the B-D requires bear-resistant food storage in the backcountry throughout its territory. But the neighboring Custer-Gallatin National Forest does not require that for backcountry travelers in its areas north of Interstate 90. South of the freeway, closer to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s estimated 750 grizzly bears, stricter rules apply.
The Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest acquired a small supply of backpacking bear-barrels, large bear-resistant ice coolers and horse panniers for short-term backcountry use. The program is free on a first-come, first-served basis. Borrowers leave a credit card number as a damage deposit and should call ahead to reserve one during busy high summer times. Gear is available at the Dillon, Butte, Philipsburg, Wisdom, Wise River and Ennis Ranger Districts.
Many state FWP offices also loan food storage gear. However, users need to remember those containers are bear-resistant, not bear-proof. The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee’s standard of review requires a food-loaded container to survive an hour with the captive grizzly bears at the Grizzly Discovery Center in West Yellowstone without getting opened. But an outfitter in the Madison Range south of Bozeman found out a determined bear can penetrate a certified cooler, and Roderick has the 2016 photo to prove it.
“Just yesterday we heard about a grizzly sighting on the Ruby River near the reservoir,” Rodreick said. “It’s got folks rethinking their adventures.”