"Don't feed the bears" is hardly new advice, but whether bears get "people food" due to irresponsible handouts or by raiding campsites, the result is the same: trouble for both animals and humans. To help with this problem, new rules for backcountry campers went into effect on May 1st at Rocky Mountain National Park. Backcountry overnight campers in the park are now required to carry a bear-resistant food storage canister.
Over the past five years, the park staff has noted an increase in bears seeking and obtaining food from humans. Bear-proof trash containers have been placed in many areas of the park, particularly in frontcountry campgrounds. Education efforts for backcountry overnight users have continued to focus on proper food storage, but those efforts have not been successful in keeping bears from obtaining food from people.
In some cases the problem has been a lack of compliance by backcountry users concerning hanging food out of reach of bears; in others, it is difficult for campers to hang food due to the type and availability of trees near campsites.
The resulting problem affects all visitors, not just those who fail to cooperate by storing food properly. The park cites some examples:
In 2003, two men were seriously injured by a black bear at a designated backcountry camping site near Fern Lake in the Bear Lake area. They appeared to have followed all food storage requirements but it was likely that others who had camped in the area before were careless with their food storage.
Video footage taken by a visitor in a nearby campsite on the same morning as the incident, showed the same bear batting around a food canister container. He was unable to open the canister. Unfortunately that bear was extremely aggressive, had associated humans with food and was later killed by a park ranger.
Over the last five years, backcountry campsites in the Wild Basin area have had increased bear activity. For two summers, specific sites were closed so bears would not be successful at getting food. Last year, food canisters were required at those particular sites.
Compared to some other parks, Rocky Mountain has a relatively small bear population.
Recent research suggests there are 20 to 25 bears in the park, which is one of the lowest densities of black bears in the country. This research also indicates that in the past twenty years human food and garbage were about 15 times more commonly utilized than in 1984-1991, when previous research occurred.
The park is trying to head off the major problems experienced with bears in other areas.
“We have seen an increase in bears seeking and acquiring food. We’ve seen an increase in tents being shredded and cabins and vehicles being broken in to. We feel that this requirement is important and necessary to protect the bear population and protect visitors, without closing more backcountry campsites," notes Chief Ranger Mark Magnuson.
"The last thing park staff want to do is remove a problem bear. We feel this is a small step to take to protect the park’s vulnerable bear population, we are being proactive before it gets worse,” Magnuson said.
In the summer of 2008, backcountry users were strongly encouraged to carry food canisters and informed that the regulation would be changing in 2009 requiring the use of food canisters. The majority of backcountry campers supported the upcoming change.
This new regulation will be in effect from May 1 through October 31 and will be for campsites below treeline, which includes the majority of sites in the park. The park has 267 backcountry camping sites, and a permit is required for backcountry camping in the park.
Campers will need to supply their own canisters. The park notes they are available for rent or purchase at many sporting good shops, including shops in Estes Park and Grand Lake, and there are numerous sources available on the internet. You'll find some additional information about such canisters on this site.
The website for Yosemite National Park, an area which has plenty of experience with bears, also includes information about bear-resistant food storage canisters, including how to use them and links to suppliers.