MISSOULA, Mont. More people are living and playing in bear country in the West, and some entrepreneurs are turning a profit by keeping the two safely apart.
''Bears. That's our livelihood,'' said Pride Johnson, president of Counter Assault, a Kalispell, Mont.-based company that specializes in bear products. Its top product is an industrial-size canister that can shoot a very unpleasant but nonlethal pepper spray 30 feet, to discourage approaching bears or stop charging ones.
It's a growing niche business, he and others say, spurred by the increasing number of people in bear country and tighter regulations for storing food in the backcountry.
''People are looking at stronger, lighter ways to store food and there's also new work on electric fences,'' said Jim Claar, carnivore program leader with the U.S. Forest Service's Northern Region in Missoula. ''It's a good trend.''
Though best known for its bear pepper spray, which sells for about $38 a can, Johnson said Counter Assault has also branched out in response to other demands recently, for example, with its Bear Keg.
The backpack-size, food container bright yellow and tailored to enthusiasts apt to spend days in the wild weighs 3.1 pounds and has a lid with latches that can be opened using keys or coins. It is intended to keep human food away from bears, and thus discouraging them from thinking of people as a food source.
Johnson expects Bear Keg, which sells for about $80, to make up maybe 5 percent of his total business the first year and grow after that.
But getting a bear-resistant product to market takes time and Johnson is among those to learn it firsthand.
Development of the Bear Keg, which took about 1 1/2 years, included testing at the Forest Service Missoula Technology & Development Center, where it was subject to tests meant to simulate a grizzly's efforts to open the container.
The testing program was authorized by a panel of government experts called the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee. If a product passes the rigorous testing, it meets Forest Service food storage requirements and can be certified bear-resistant for use in grizzly habitat in the lower 48 states, said Bob Summerfield, Forest Service national grizzly bear habitat coordinator in Missoula.
In December, the committee gave support to another testing program that, among other things, uses captive bears from the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone, Mont., to give products a real-life workout.
UnBearAble Bins Inc., which has offices in Canada and Montana, had its 95-gallon, plastic trash bins tested at the center. Derek Reich, a partner in the business, said he was pleased with the results.
''You could see where there were toothmarks but there were no holes and where they ripped off wheels,'' he said. ''But it was totally functional.''
Reich said that if more people used bear-resistant products, many conflicts with bears could be avoided.
Wildlife managers agree. But they say education of outdoor enthusiasts and homeowners nestled in wilder areas is also crucial in the overall effort of bear management. People leaving out trash or other food can end with bears being killed by wildlife authorities who consider them a problem or danger.
''Everyone wants to own their share of the Big Sky. But there's an inherent responsibility that goes along with that,'' said Jim Williams, a regional wildlife manager for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
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