Bears with a Foot Fetish? Big Bend National Park Offers New Bear Safety Advice

Black bear.

NPS photo.

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.

Comments

Another great article on one of the finest parks in the NPS system. Hope articles like yours will keep the public aware of how important it is to keep a clean camp. Littered trails and campgrounds are a sore subject with me. Never would have though of shoes though! My education never ends. Thank you.

The shoes probably carried the odor of food the same way clothes do. It's long been recommended that you changed your clothes after eating because the bear can smell the food on your clothes. Same deal with shoes apparently.

It has been said that in bear country, in general, one can discourage bears from entering your campground by drinking a good amount of liquids and urinating in a large circle around the camp. Les Stroud, the real 'Survivorman' in my opinion, has mentioned that on his show in the past. The information I've read also stated that this will not work for women and very well may have the opposite effect if ladies try it - especially during a woman's estrus period. Can anyone of authority verify this?

Is it documented that bears react differently to different stimuli in different areas of the country (i.e. - 'the bears in Texas are fond of hot sauce' (not really - but you get my meaning?)).

One last question for anyone that knows - how do bears react to different 'urine scents' that you can buy in packages at the sporting goods store? Regular urine scents I use to mask my human smell are 'whitetail / mule deer' (for obvious reasons and seasons) and 'red fox' (supposedly the fox scent makes deer feel more secure about their surroundings).

Just a guess - I'm going to go out on a limb and say that 'white acorn' or other sweet / natural foodsource scents like that for bringing in other animals would probably not be a good idea if you want to avoid bears?

Thanks,

Thomas L Price
TX

P.S. - I try to make it to Big Bend at least twice a year, every year. It seems to me that in the recent past (last year and the year before) there has been an increase of Javelina traffic in the Basin campgrounds. While bears normally won't go anywhere around those campsites, the Javelina have no issue at all - they are not afraid of you and will tear down a tent to get at food / water / whatever they smell of interest. Please avoid Javelina - they can and will hurt you if you are not mindful and safe. Three months ago there was a camper that came upon a big male Javelina that was INSIDE the bear-safe box at his campsite. The box was left with one door open, crumbs left inside and nothing more. The campers went to eat at the restaraunt and upon return (after dark) they, and the animal, both got a real big scare. No one was injured, thank goodness.

Thomas -

Thanks for the comment and the information about the Javelina - another good safety reminder about wildlife.

Perhaps someone with expertise on your other questions will offer some feedback. However, I'd certainly avoid anything, including the urine scents you mention, in bear country. I'd guess there's not a huge amount of science out there on hows bears react to such scents, but I wouldn't want to be the one serving as a test subject :-)