A ‘shocking’ way to store food in bear country

A grizzly bear digs through trash at the Trout Creek dump in a 1963 file photo from Yellowstone National Park. (NPS/John Good)

A grizzly bear digs through trash at the Trout Creek dump in a 1963 file photo from Yellowstone National Park. (NPS/John Good)

By Kelsey Dayton/WyoFile.com

It used to take students on National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) courses up to an hour to hang their food in bear country. While students still learn how to properly hang food, they don’t often do it in the backcountry. Instead they use electric bear fences.

Now NOLS often has 15 people on a 30-day trip, so they are hanging 300 pounds of food, said John Gookin, curriculum and research manager with NOLS. The food needed won’t fit in bear resistant containers.

Most of us aren’t going on those types of expedition trips. But hanging food can be tricky — there have been injuries and  worse, and in some areas it can be hard to find suitable trees.

It isn’t just NOLS that is turning to electric bear fences for food storage. The Shoshone National Forest purchased several fences for backcountry staff, said Diane Probasco, wildlife biologist on the forest.

People often take them when they know they are heading into places with few trees or areas with dead trees, she said. The fences are available to the public for checkout, with a refundable deposit, although no one has taken advantage of it yet, she said. To check-out a fence, or use a personal one, you must have a letter signed by the forest supervisor, granted after you complete training on how to use the fence. You also have to carry a rope as a backup, she said.

Probasco expects the fences will become more popular because they are convenient, however they weigh about 6 pounds, which some might find heavy, especially if you have to be prepared with an alternative storage method anyway, she said.

Since they started selling electric bear fences in 2005, commercial seller of bear deterrents UDAP has seen an increase in sales each year, said Tim Lynch, general manager. The fences are especially popular in Alaska, he said. Customers are often hunters, outfitters and backpackers. The company makes three types of fences, the smallest weighing 3.7 pounds that can surround a small camp.

While business steadily increases Lynch doubts they will become popular enough to support a business. UDAP’s main business is bear spray.

NOLS began investigating using electric fences in 2001, putting $100,000 into research, Gookin told bear experts and land managers at a meeting in Jackson last week.

They tried different types of fences, looking for one that worked, but also wasn’t a hassle.

“It took a week to put a fence together that was bear proof and years to make one that was human proof,” Gookin said.

The important thing was to create a fence that people could intuitively use. The result was the fences that are now used by NOLS. The fence kit weighs about 6 pounds. The fences were tested extensively in different scenarios with bears at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, as well as in the backcountry by bear experts and forest service staff.

The fence model they settled on alternate positive and negative charged wires and runs on 2 D batteries that last about 14 days to provide 9,000 volts of electricity.

“It’ll knock you on your butt,” Gookin said.

In more than 25,000 user nights there have been seven incidents, like when a fence was knocked down by a deer. Only once has a bear received a food reward when a fence was left in the backcountry. There have been no food rewards since 2004, Gookin said.
The fences, which cost several hundred dollars, also have proved durable. Of the 125 NOLS bought since 2005, only 10 have needed replacing.

NOLS still teaches students how to properly hang food as well as emphasizing the importance of properly using fences in ways like minimizing odors and maintaining optimal voltage.

It’s the human error that has officials in Grand Teton National Park, where fences aren’t allowed for food storage, worried, said spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs. Since, 2008, all backpackers are required to use bear canisters for food storage, unless at a site with a bear box. People weren’t hanging their food properly and bears were getting food rewards, she said. The canisters, which are checked out from the park, weigh 2.1 pounds and 2.9 pounds depending on the size.
The backcountry sites in Yellowstone National Park have a food pole built to the park’s specifications, said Kerry Gunther a bear biologist.

“It takes about 20 seconds to throw a rope over,” Gunther said. A bear has gotten food from a hung bag less than a dozen times in almost 45,000 user nights, he said.

The park recently started allowing bear canisters for those entering the park on trails as part of extended backpacking trips, Gunther said. Canisters need to be stored 100 yards away from where your tent is set up, or in the same area of the bear pole and the area you do your cooking.

If electric fences become more popular- and prove effective- it could be something Yellowstone could allow in their bear management plan in the future, Gunther said.

As for Gookin, if he was heading out on his own he’d consider taking a fence depending on how long he was camping and how many people were going. If it’s a short trip without a lot of food, he’d probably just take a rope.

Republished with permission from WyoFile.comKelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at [email protected]

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