When I was 23, I worked one summer as a consultant at a night camp for 8 to 12 year olds near the central mountain town of Genesee, Colorado. After a stern conversation about what could happen if someone goes to bed with a snack in their sleeping bag – bears guys! -, we would put the children in their tents for the night, lock the cabin with our kitchen and try to get a few hours of sleep.
One morning around 5:30 am I dragged myself into the kitchen for coffee after a particularly long night of tearful, homesick tweens. Two other advisors were already there examining the debris: a broken window, boxes of groceries strewn across the linoleum floor, burst sacks of hot cocoa mixture, and a maze of chocolate paw prints. We had assumed our supplies would be safe from intruders, but the weak windows were no match for a hungry bear.
That incident was a textbook case of food conditioning, according to wildlife biologist Wes Larson, who studies the conflict between humans and bears. "A bear who breaks into someone else's campsite now knows he can get this really high-calorie meal," he explains. "It's a huge payoff for relatively little effort compared to hours of berry picking." The bear that broke into our camp kitchen was constantly doing risk assessment – no matter how much she didn't want to interact with people, she was too tempted by the reward to stay away.
"Then they start doing unbearable things," says Larson. In other words, you get into trouble.
Almost every bear at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center (GWDC) in West Yellowstone, Montana has a similar backstory. The center is a non-profit educational facility that is home to grizzly bears who, for one reason or another, cannot survive in the wild. It is also home to three small packs of captive-born wolves, a handful of injured birds of prey, and five American river otters.
When a wildlife officer from the American West, Alaska, or Canada has an annoying grizzly bear and wants to avoid euthanizing it, the GWDC is often at the top of their call log. (Unfortunately, due to the center's limited capacity, the answer is often that no other bear can be accommodated. In this case, bears typically need to be euthanized, according to Randy Gravatt, GWDC's container testing coordinator.)
Coram, a male grizzly who varies in weight from 550 to 680 pounds depending on the season, wandered Kalispell, Montana, checking the porches for dog nibbles. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials captured him three times before ending up at the GWDC. Spirit, a female grizzly, couldn't stay away from a golf course in Whitefish. She was relocated six times – once up to 100 miles away, but kept finding her way back to that simple source of food – before one of her boys was hit by a car and taken to her the West Yellowstone facility.
Coram, Spirit and the six other bears that live at GWDC don't just waste in captivity, however. You have an important job to do: you test containers to see if they are bear resistant.
"It's not just for the bears' sake," says Gravatt. "When bears are no longer afraid of people, we can be harmed too."
Every spring, Gravatt begins to fill coolers, bike bags, backpack canisters and dumpsters from well-known manufacturers such as Yeti, Cabela & # 39; s, Pelican and Igloo with vegetables, dry dog food, fish, honey and the bear's favorites – peanut butter. “They don't like mushrooms or onions,” Gravatt says, adding that the bears will eat almost anything else to pack about 15,000 calories a day over the summer (more as they prepare for hibernation). .
Once the containers are full of goodies, Gravatt places them in front of the bears, who poke, poke, scratch, bite, smash, and sometimes use what is known as the "CPR method," where bears place their front paws on a container and pump, almost as if they try to revive the unfortunate object. If the container is left intact to a certain standard, gaps, tears, and holes on dumpsters cannot be larger than an inch. It's only a quarter of an inch for food containers – it bears the literal seal of approval of the bears: a sticker with the head and shoulders of a grizzly and the product's certification number. The GWDC is the only testing facility in the world where products can be certified by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC).
The committee was formed in 1983, a decade after the Endangered Species Act made it clear that the grizzly bear, with its endangered capital status, needed coordinated management. Around 450 products – from lightweight plastic bear canisters for backpacking to heavy duty coolers that you might bring with you on a multi-day river cruise to industrial-grade metal garbage bins – have earned a spot on the IGBC's list of bear-resistant products, director of the National Carnivore Program, according to Scott Jackson US Forest Service and advisor to the IGBC.
The IGBC Executive Committee includes 13 representatives from major state agencies, including the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the governments of the four U.S. states where grizzlies have been found (Washington, Idaho), Montana and Wyoming) as well as two Canadian partners. The committee meets twice a year to discuss local issues, educational programs and other initiatives.
In the 1980s, urban sprawl and increased outdoor recreation resulted in increasing levels of interaction between humans and bears. The IGBC was facing a growing challenge, Jackson explains, with grizzlies and trash cans in local homes, campsites, and backpacking. Therefore, the IGBC has made recommendations to keep food and rubbish away from them.
Later in the decade, the IGBC began issuing instructions on how to build homemade bear-resistant containers – mostly modified metal ammunition cans. They tested these products with mechanisms designed to simulate bears' teeth and claws, and tried to exert a similar force by dropping a weighted penetrometer mechanism – what Gravatt calls a "pointed metal object" – on them to mimic bites.
At the same time, the grizzly was beginning to recover – in the 1970s there were fewer than 140 grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), according to the National Park Service; There are more than 700 today. The U.S. Geological Survey reported 73 grizzly bear deaths in the GYE in 2018, with at least 50 known to be man-made, often due to habituation. Eventually, as outdoor recreation gained popularity and the market expanded, manufacturers began in earnest to mass-produce their own bear-resistant containers. However, they needed an improved way to test them beyond the Wile E. Coyote style experiments. What could be nicer than using real bears, preferably those who know their way around a cooler?
This is where Gravatt came in. Fifteen years ago, the IGBC asked if he would help them formalize the program by throwing the bears that got there in the trash. At that time he was working as the facility manager of the GWDC. He had helped with the animal husbandry obligations because the center had few staff.
Nowadays, the bears test a few dozen products each season. Manufacturers pay a fee that helps cover Gravatt's time, the bears' myriad cost of living, and conservation and education efforts at GWDC. Then they send their containers to West Yellowstone, where Gravatt fills them with goodies and lets the bears get to work. (Not all bears participate; 1,000 pounds Sam is too big and Nakina, an Alaskan grizzly, just isn't interested.)
(Photo: Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center)
The goal is for the container to last for 60 minutes – by which time a typical bear has given up in the wild. Occasionally Gravatt has to run the test a few times before a GWDC bear stays interested that long. The success rate varies, says Gravatt, and was around 50 percent last year. Occasionally, a product fails immediately: a bear finds out the mechanism or manages to drill a large hole.
After each test, Gravatt examines the container and fills out a report. He sends the analysis back to the manufacturers, who can also opt to videotape the bears' rigorous testing process. If the product is successful, Gravatt notifies the IGBC, which will issue a certification number that manufacturers can display on their products.
The seal is important. IGBC-approved containers are required for food storage in many public areas in grizzly land. It's not just for the bears' sake, Gravatt says. "When bears are no longer afraid of people, we can be harmed too."
Regardless of the rules, says wildlife biologist Larson, front and back country users have a responsibility to avoid conflict by properly storing food. "For us, an encounter can be life-changing," he says. "It can be a death sentence for a bear."
In this way, the bears that once broke into campsites and backyards – and were almost euthanized in some cases – directly help reduce food conditioning in their wild counterparts. Coram and Spirit are at GWDC for the rest of their natural lives, Gravatt says, but thanks to their testing, other bears can avoid the same fate.
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Main Photo: Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center
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