Not too long ago, I hiked Granite Mountain off of I-90 in Washington state (mentioned in blog post “Back in Business”). When I arrived at the rocky summit, I chose an ideal location to soak in the views and enjoy a nice lunch to refuel for my descent. I chose a spot against the rock foundation of the fire lookout. I began eating, when I was greeted by a chipmunk. Then, another. I quickly realized what these chipmunks were interested in: the food bag I placed by my side. I tried to shoo them away by waving my trekking pole in their general direction. That didn’t seem to deter them. Then, I decided I would change locations, but they were so fast, it was hard for me to get my belongings and food together and into my bag quickly without them getting close enough to get into my things. As I moved, they followed me. Correspondingly, I saw that someone had blatantly left pistachio shells on the ground. That probably was the least of the human food made available to these chipmunks.
When I mentioned these rather aggressive squirrels to a few other hikers, they said they too had seen them. However, they seemed rather charmed by them. One guy said he even let one sit in his hand. Conversely, I was annoyed and frustrated. I know why they were behaving this way, and it effectively ruined my lunch and time at the summit. They were acting this way because of the carelessness of humans. These chipmunks were acting bold because they have been habituated to having a steady source of food provided by humans. Not only do they like this arrangement, they feel entitled to it. However, it is not their fault, but rather the fault of people. It has been proven time and time again, that wild animals, if given an easy source of human food, will continue to pursue that source. However, one might believe that if that source is later restricted, that the animals will return to their natural food source. In fact, that is not the case. They actually lose their natural instincts to hunt and forage for food, and become more aggressive at pursuing human food. They associate humans with food, and when they see any human, they come running. These impacts range from the trail, to mountain summits, popular destinations and waysides, and campgrounds. Dr. Jeff Marion and Dr. Yu-Fai Leung paraphrase a study done by Evelyn Merril in Glacier National Park: “Intentional or unintentional wildlife feeding is also common at campsites, leading to attraction behavior and unhealthy food dependencies. Species that frequent campsites in search of food include birds, mice, rats, ground and red squirrels, skunks, racoons, foxes and bears. Consistent human feeding can lead to increases in small animal populations, which then crash suddenly at the end of the use season. Bears that obtain food pose a serious safety threat to visitors, and many must be relocated or killed.”
You can see the consequences associated with humans being careless with their food. It can cause animals to lose their natural instincts and become more dependent on humans, create a boom and bust life cycle of animals based on food availability (usually based on tourist seasons), and create human-wildlife conflict. Not only does close interaction with humans threaten the safety, health, and sometimes life of the human in the interaction, it can also threaten, especially in the case of charismatic megafauna like bears, moose, elk, or wolves, the animals’ lives. In the most extreme cases, these behaviors of attraction to human food and the endless pursuit of it, can ignite a series of learned behaviors in animal families and populations, that can almost never be reversed. If this is the case, the population of animals in that area will always be taught by their elders that the way to achieve food is to take it from humans. Hence, the bear issues in Yosemite National Park. Despite the fact that it’s not their fault, as they are just following their nose, stomach, and evolutionary need to feed, the animal will always pay price in a human-wildlife conflict regardless of the humans carelessness. Whether relocation or euthanasia, it is OUR fault. Does that sound fair to the animal?
So, what do we do? The answer is simple: take care of your food! Do not feed animals. Pick up any pieces of food you drop. Pick up the smallest pieces that you can. Although you might not think they will be a problem, micro garbage to us can be a meal to a small animal. Properly protect your food when camping: in the backcountry, be sure to suspend a proper bear bag, use a certified bear canister, or use provided bear bear boxes at designated campsites. If car camping, keep your food in your car or provided bear boxes. When in the backcountry, clean up your cooking area, and wash your pots and utensils appropriately (which includes using a strainer to collect food scraps from gray water, and dumping gray water into a 6-8 inch deep hole). I know that no one is perfect. Even I, may drop food that goes unnoticed. Even I, have accidentally spilled gatorade powder, which is practically impossible to get out of soil in its entirety. What is important is being conscientious. Taking the necessary and steps and effort to properly take care of food. It may seem inconvenient, but it is absolutely critical, and it DOES help. It protects you, but most importantly, it protects the animals. I know many of you love animals. That’s great, but not matter how compelled you feel to feed, pet, be near, or take pictures with a wild animal, please don’t do it. I don’t care if it’s a chipmunk, a moose, or a bear. If you love animals, you will leave them alone. You might even scare them away, if they are approaching inappropriately, like if they’re on your property, in your campground, or appear to be after your food. It sounds mean, but sometimes it takes negative stimuli to reverse their behavior. An animal’s success in the wild, especially in places where there is an opportunity for regular human interaction, is based on two things: a.) being afraid of humans b.) restricting their access to human food sources. The moment and animal becomes comfortable around humans and taps into the pool of human food is effectively the moment that animals ceases to be its natural self. It is no longer wild. Isn’t that part of the reason we visit natural areas, to see wild animals? Let’s keep them wild, by keeping our distance and our food to ourselves.
My First Time Using a Bear Canister
Since we’re on the topic of food protection, I wanted to note that a recent 3 day/2 night backpacking trip in the Olympic Mountains was my very first time using a bear canister. This was the first time I was ever backpacking in an area that required them. Throughout my entire backpacking history, I have always successfully bear bagged. As someone who considers himself quite proficient in bear bagging, I was interested to use a bear canister and see how it compared. I wanted to share my opinions and impressions. The bear canister I used was the Counter Assault Bear Keg. Upon using, this is what I noticed:
1. It was heavy. Not unbearable, but definitely heavier than my food stuff sack/bear bagging system. I’m sure this applies to most or all bear canisters.
2. It forced me to change my backpack packing system. The nice thing about carrying a food bag is that it is, for the most part, compressible and easy to stuff into misshapen spaces in your backpack. Bear canisters, however, become the central focus of your packing system. They’re big and bulky, and do not change shape. Everything has to work around them. Eventually, I found a system that worked. This still allowed me easy access to my clothes that I stacked vertically along the side of the canister, and I saved on bulk by storing my first aid kit inside the bear canister while hiking, removing it while in camp when we needed to put two fit two people’s food into the canister.
3. It can be a challenge to fit everything in. On the first night of our trip, it was a bit of a challenge to fit all of the smellable things in our camp into the bear canister. We brought one canister between the two of us. Each of us had 3 days worth of food, and other small smellables, like toothpaste. It took a bit of re-arranging to stuff it all in. While this is not an insurmountable challenge, it definitely takes a bit of creativity at times to fit everything. If one does not plan accordingly before a trip, you could be left in a situation where you literally cannot fit everything, which can lead to two choices: leaving something outside of the bear canister while in camp (which is less than ideal), or over eating on food at a certain meal to reduce the amount of food that needs to go into the canister, also less than ideal, because it changes the amount of rations you have for the rest of the trip.
4. In the case of this model, it requires a coin, knife, or screwdriver of some sort to open it, or lock it closed. This is a minor inconvenience, creating the need to always have an item of that sort available and ready to use. The more you use small items like that and keep them out, the more likely you are to leave or forget them somewhere. This is not a big deal, but compared to the BearVault canisters, which require no additional tools to open, it can make a difference in your experience.
5. The biggest advantage to bear canisters is their ease of use. Despite their limitations, they are extraordinarily easy to use. They are, for the most part, a full proof way to protect your food. Nothing can get in them, except for humans (read about the exception with the link provided below, a bear named Yellow-Yellow in the Adirondacks that learned how to bust into BearVaults. While she passed away in 2012, another bear was reported able to open them in 2014. Link: Yellow-Yellow, the BearVault busting bear in the Adirondacks). A bear, or any other animal, can bite them, scratch them, stomp on them, roll them around, and still not get into them. Eventually, they will lose interest, and move along. Also, you can use them anywhere. Bear bagging, on the other hand, is not as full proof. It requires a number of variables to find a suitable place to bear bag. If these variables don’t line up, you’re either left with a bag susceptible to tampering by animals, or left without a place to hang your bag, which is worst case scenario. In camp, you can use the canister as a stool to sit on. When it’s time to go to bed, you simply place it 100 feet or more away from your camp.
In general, I’d have to say that I prefer packing my backpack with a bear bagging system. I just think it packs better and lighter. However, while in camp, I prefer using a bear canister. Although I do enjoy the challenge of setting up a good bear bag (it’s something I take pride in), using a bear canister is just so easy that is allows me to use my time to do other things, like take in the sunset, explore areas around camp, or retrieve my food whenever I want to and quickly at that. While I definitely won’t use bear canisters all the time, I certainly won’t moan and groan when I have to.