Grizzly bears test new food-storage products

Posted: Friday, June 18, 2004

WEST YELLOWSTONE, Mont. Sam, an Alaskan grizzly, twitches his nose as he picks up the scent of mackerel juice and peanut butter lathered on a 95-gallon metal trash can.

''It's an enjoyment for him to break things open,'' says Randy Gravatt, a naturalist at the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center, during a product testing session last month. ''He's been called Houdini more than once.''

At 920 pounds, Sam will decide whether this trash can, an invention of Colorado prison inmates, is worthy of a coveted ''bear-resistant'' label from the Living with Wildlife Foundation.

He licks the peanut butter-lathered hinges, his pink tongue working creamy Peter Pan from the grooves. With a gentle shove of the paw, Sam sends the container crashing to its side. Then he slurps up mackerel juice seeping from the seams. Righting the can with both paws, Sam strokes the lid, claws clacking as he feels for an opening.

Sam is one of eight bears who are official product inspectors at the center. Grizzlies have been testing products here for several years, but this spring marks the beginning of a new certification program designed to help landowners properly store trash, pet food and other attractants.

By ensuring storage containers are truly ''bear resistant,'' the new program should prevent property damage and keep wild bears out of trouble.

''If all that testing helps people to coexist with bears, then it's a win-win,'' says Brian DeBolt, a Wyoming Game and Fish Department bear management officer who often is called to trap and relocate problem bears.

The federal government has long had inspection programs to ensure food and trash containers used in grizzly territory on public lands are bear resistant.

But no program existed for containers used on private lands, says Patti Sowka, executive director of the Living with Wildlife Foundation. So Sowka teamed up with James Jonkel of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to design such a program.

Last December, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, a group of government officials coordinating recovery of the threatened species, approved the new testing protocol.

Under the program, products must survive a drubbing from multiple grizzlies at the center in this tourist town, which serves as a gateway to Yellowstone National Park.

''We just bring the product to the grizzlies,'' Sowka says, and ''let them tell us whether or not it's bear resistant.''

During the first round of testing the last week of April, five of 11 containers passed and will earn bear-resistant labels from the Living with Wildlife Foundation. Some products that failed need only minor alterations to shore up weaknesses, Sowka says.

The grizzlies left one metal locker, for example, in a heap of twisted metal. The bears ripped the locker, designed to neatly hide garbage cans, off a pedestal and then bounced on the doors till they caved in. If the locker were mounted directly in concrete instead of on a stand, the bears probably wouldn't have gotten it on its side and trampled the doors, Sowka said.

That's the program's goal, Sowka said, to pinpoint weaknesses before wild bears do. Once a wild bear gets into trash or other human-related foods, a bear often loses its natural fear of humans. That can lead to more property damage and risks to human safety. Bear managers often kill problem bears as a precaution.

''We need to be able to tell consumers what works,'' said Sowka, whose passion for the program ignited after an infamous problem bear, nicknamed the Nine Mile Bear, showed up one evening on her porch in Alberton, Mont.

Staring at her through the front door, the bear frightened Sowka.

Although the bear got no food reward from Sowka, it already had become a chronic problem. Four days later, wildlife agents shot the bear.

Many grizzlies at the Discovery Center are problem bears removed from the wild after raiding campgrounds and trash bins. Sam and his kid sister, Illie, came to the center in 1996 after rangers busted the orphaned cubs for raiding campgrounds in Alaska's Katmai National Park.

During the recent product testing session, Illie put her muscle into a Coleman cooler, which caretakers planted as a decoy to prevent sibling rivalry during a 90-minute session when she and Sam shared the outdoor habitat.

The cooler also offers the center's clientele a compelling exhibit of a grizzly's strength, Gravatt says.

Weighing in at 720 pounds, Illie pushes the cooler on its side, places her front paws on it and bounces. One. Two. Three. The lid springs, and she dives into the kibble within.

Illie, Sam and the other captive bears are helping keep their wild counterparts out of trouble, says John Heine, the center's director. Thus, the center's participation in the testing program is a no-brainer.

''If there's any way that we can give back to the wild populations, that makes our work more rewarding for all of us,'' Heine says.

The captive bears benefit as well. Caretakers hide food to force the bears to forage for it.

''It's a form of behavioral enrichment, which most zoos are doing anyway,'' Sowka says. ''This is just another toy as far as the bears are concerned.''

The center's visitors also enjoy watching grizzlies tussle with containers.

Says Heine, ''If a bear gets into a dumpster or container there's usually a loud cheer and applause on behalf of the bear.''

Heine expects testing to be a regular feature at the center with as many as 60 products coming through each year. Products get a thorough workout, sustaining 90-minute sessions with multiple bears, who have varying techniques, Heine says. Some bears, for example, have no claws and are particularly adept at using their teeth.

''People need to understand just how smart these animals are,'' Sowka says. ''They'll work at something. If they start to get into it, it's all over.''

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