Officials in Big Bend National Park have issued some slightly unusual guidelines for backcountry campers in parts of the Texas park: "Leave shoes outside tents or in bear boxes if camping in High Chisos backcountry sites."
Recent experience suggests this is good advice. Proper storage of food, garbage and other items with strong odors has always been important for safety in bear country, but ...shoes?
According to information from the park, a black bear destroyed 3 unoccupied tents in the Colima Canyon area of the High Chisos (above 7,000 feet) in late December 2008. These events occurred in solitary high mountain backcountry campsites, not in the developed Chisos Basin campground. There have been no reported incidents thus far in 2009.
Campers reported food was not left in any of the tents—apparently it was the smell of shoes that attracted the bear. The bear crushed or ripped into tents to get at the shoes, and when campers returned to their site, they found that shoes had been removed, chewed on, and dropped along the trail or in the woods.
Those incidents prompted the following advice from rangers:
When leaving a site for a hike, please put scented items in the bear boxes. Shoes and boots might be best left outside of tents so that if a bear is curious about that particular odor, they can smell the shoe, satisfy their curiosity, and move on. Sometimes bears eat carrion, and perhaps the shoes had a very strong scent.
The bear destroyed the tents because it smelled something in the tent and investigated. The fabric was an incidental obstacle between them and what they want to check out. Please remember that bears don't realize that tents cost people money, nor do bears have an understanding of private property, they are just innocently doing what they have done for millennia...act like bears and investigate smells for possible food.
Remember too that bears have a much better sense of smell than humans, so while we can't smell some things, they can. Do your best to think like a bear as you secure your belongings.
It is advised that campers flatten tents while on a day hike away from a High Chisos site to lessen the chance of property destruction.
Spring is right around the corner in the Texas desert, and it's a popular season in Big Bend. If you're planning backcountry camping or hiking in the park, especially in the High Chisos area, please read this information about bears in the area.
No visitor has ever been attacked by a bear at Big Bend National Park. There were a few instances last year of bears mock-charging visitors, growling, or stomping their feet when people approach or surprise them. The park website has additional advice and "bear discouragement techniques."
Although black bears were common in the Big Bend area in the early 1900s, by the time the park was established in 1944, there were virtually no resident bears in the area. Shooting and trapping by ranchers, federal predator control agents and recreational hunters, combined with loss of habitat due to settlement and development, contributed to their decline.
The animals began returning in the 1980s, migrating northward from Mexico. The recolonization of black bears in Big Bend is a remarkable natural event. The park staff clearly realizes that while return of bears to Big Bend is a positive development, it is imperative to educate visitors about proper behavior in bear country if problems which occur in other parks are to be avoided. The park website notes,
What might occur if bears develop a taste for human food is injuries to hikers if a bear wants what a person is carrying, or if a person gets between the bear and food, or property damage to tents. This will only come to pass if visitors are reckless in how they take care of the items they bring that might attract bears. This includes food, soaps, items with odors like lip balm, even trash and dirty dishes not properly secured.
That's good advice, which we hope people will take to heart. Recent events have shown that humans need to add "shoes" to that list of items that need to be properly secured.
It's too soon to tell if "Odor Eaters" for footwear should be added to the list of recommended bear safety techniques.