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Nature Watch: Everything from Armadillos to Zebra Butterflies

The Party's Over

Picture a Black Bear somewhere out West. The bear is fat . . . but not fat enough. If it's going to survive the long winter hibernation, it must forage for as much food as possible before the cold arrives. Fortunately, its powerful nose (a hundred times more sensitive than a dog's nose) leads the bear to a quiet campground and a black plastic cylinder next to an empty tent. The tent smells only of mildew and backpackers, while the cylinder is tantalizingly fragrant.

With fang and claw, the bear tries to open the cylinder, which merely slips, slides, and rolls away. When further attempts prove just as unsuccessful, the bear moves on to some berries and grubs across the creek.

What happened? The bear was foiled by a bear-resistant food container. A smart camper saved not only a meal or two but possibly the bear's life as well. That's because bears that ransack for food in campgrounds and trailhead parking areas are regarded as "problem" bears, and according to park policy, aggressive problem bears must be relocated or euthanized.

Still, there's another solution: require visitors to be more responsible. In Yosemite National Park, for example, the overnight storage of food in cars is now banned. As a result, the number of car break-ins by Yosemite's bears dropped from 1,100 in 1998 to a mere 318 in 1999.

Bear-resistant containers play a similarly crucial role. Many national parks now offer these so-called "bear 'tainers" to wilderness backpackers. Made of PVC or aluminum, bear 'tainers have smooth round edges and flush lids that can be opened only with a blade or coin (neither of which the average bear carries). Heavy steel lockers for mandatory storage of all bear-bait items, such as food, trash, cooking utensils, even scented cosmetics, have been installed in other parks. And experts have ceased advising the use of hanging food caches, since bears have mastered this system, too.

But the problem isn't limited to parks. In Colorado, where bears sometimes enter rural homes searching for food, more than twenty-five bears have been put to death this year alone for foraging too close to people. Not surprisingly, towns like Aspen and Snowmass Village, both near bear habitat, now require residents to upgrade garbage receptacles or face misdemeanor charges.