As the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee wrestled with a conservation plan during their summer meeting in Polson last week, they also contemplated how to deal with another problem: The diverse and often confusing variations in food storage orders issued on public lands in grizzly country.
For Yellowstone National Park Grizzly Bear Habitat Coordinator Dan Tyers, it is an issue that has followed him for his entire 43-year career in the park.
“The issue really at hand is how to make attractants unavailable to bears. There is a purpose to what we are doing. We grew up with the mantra that ‘a fed bear is a dead bear’ in our literature and it is a mantra that holds true. Food storage is our first line of defense in the issue of not only conserving the bear population but also in public safety,” Tyers told the committee last week. “We started out relatively conservatively, in the Yellowstone ecosystem at least, and expanded the orders over time as we gained credibility and social acceptance.”
But the struggle to educate the public as to bear safety and the need for food storage has been a long, hard road for Tyres and his colleagues.
“We had to deal with the issue of educating the public, the challenges of having them understand that we do have food storage orders and there is a real concern. This is an enterprise that has been hard-won for us. We still struggle with what is the best way to get information on this topic out there,” Tyres said. “It is true that you can move across the Yellowstone ecosystem and by stepping a foot to one side or the other you can be in a jurisdiction that has an order with fundamental elements in departure with its neighbor, and that is not perhaps the best public service.”
One look at the food storage order map on the IGBC website brings the issue into clear focus. A patchwork of colors represents the different food storage orders in effect throughout the Yellowstone (GYE) and Northern Continental Divide Ecosystems (NDCE). While the wide view is confusing enough, zoom in and you can find areas where there may be as many as three and four different food storage orders in effect in a less than 5-mile radius. The confusion does not end there, those wanting to use the map also have to take into account the time frames when the different orders are in effect. The result is one giant mess.
“We realized when we were putting that map together that it was going to highlight the amount of inconsistency there is across all of the food storage areas. That’s nothing new,” IGBC advisor and U.S. Forest Service employee Scott Jackson said. “We are hearing more and more about the public having a difficult time finding what food storage orders are in effect in different areas. Sometimes the information was not readily available and it differed from place to place. There is nothing more important that we can do as people who live, work and recreate in bear country than to keep our attractants secure from bears. We have come a long way with that, but there is still work to be done.”
For the casual camper, keeping up with the regulations can be a daunting task, to say the least. To emphasize this, Tyers produced a printed spreadsheet of all of the different rules and regulations regarding food storage orders in the GYE and NCDE. The list was 6.5 feet long. The list of different regulations was astounding and ranged from rules regarding the storage of personal hygiene products to the use of electric fencing to protect camps. Tyres pointed out the difference in backcountry food storage rules in the GYE and the NCDE. In Yellowstone, food must be stored above the reach of grizzly bear, but can be kept in camp in the NCDE as long as it is “attended” at all times. According to Tyres, this curious rule has led to incidents of those traveling the NCDE by horseback sleeping on sacks of grain overnight to “attend” to them.
As the federal government moves towards removing the grizzly bear from the endangered species list – a decision that is expected to come this fall – Tyres and Jackson feel now is the time took move towards a more consistent approach to food storage orders by those agencies involved in issuing them.
“Why is it relevant now? We have more bears in more places. As we move forward with delisting, it just seems reasonable that we would examine all parts of our program,” Tyres said.
The committee agreed to look into the issue further.