It's almost impossible to secure yourself against a food raid from bears. That's because these giant mammals are clever tool users, and they share their tech knowledge with other bears nearby. As a result, bear-proofing technology rarely works for more than a couple of decades before every bear knows how to crack it.
Back in the day, outdoorsmen were simply able to sleep with food in their tents or next to their campfire. The presence of a human being enough to keep most bears away. Then, with the rise of recreational backpacking and other pursuits through the 50s and 60s, bears gradually lost their fear of humans and started getting that food. So, we started hanging it from trees. But, by the 1980s, bears had learned how to defeat that method too. So, the Bear Canister or Vault was invented, an indestructible plastic canister that requires human dexterity to use; you have to poke in two dinky tabs with your fingernails while twisting off the top.
Then, around 2007, a bear in the Adirondacks named "Yellow-Yellow" for her matching ear tags learned how to open one of those. Tragically, Yellow-Yellow was killed by hunters in 2012, but reports of other bears in the region using her food stealing methods have risen since. The manufacturer of Bear Vaults no longer recommends that their products be used in the area and new products are in development to defeat that clever population. Thus the arms race with bears escalates again.
Here, Yellow-Yellow can be seen stealing a camper's backpack near Marcy Dam.
Back in 2007, shortly after moving to the US from England, I had a run-in with a bear in the area where Yellow-Yellow operated most frequently—Marcy Dam. Leaving Brooklyn after work one summer Friday, I eventually arrived at the trailhead around 10pm, then hiked the few miles in to set up my first camp after dark. This was my first trip to the region, a three-day hike that was supposed to take me up Mt. Marcy, the highest peak in those mountains.
Reaching the organized campsite across the dam well after all the other hikers using it had turned in for the night, I quietly poked around, looking for an empty site. But, I wasn't the only thing moving through the woods that night. Bears, several of them, could be heard walking in the underbrush, pawing at trash cans and raiding campsites. I'd never heard anything like it, the number of bears, their brazenness and their fear-free proximity to humans was shocking.
The Adirondacks was one of the first areas of the US to become a massively popular destination for city folk to go spend time outdoors. So, bears have been frequently interacting with people there since the mid-1800s. Plenty of time for them to learn to associate us with food. These days, the park's popular trails are massively overcrowded and are a frequent destination for New Yorkers who… maybe don't get outdoors all that much. So, campers' food has become a primary food source for many bears there.
I knew none of that on this first trip, so just picked the highest peak I could find on a map and planned on walking up it. And I'd never encountered bears this brazen on any of my trips across the US, Canada or Europe. It was insane, people were happily sleeping in their tents as bears prowled immediately outside. And while I'd heard about bear canisters, I was skeptical of their utility. I didn't have one, had never used one and didn't feel like buying a bigger backpack to carry one, so I fell back on the tried and true method of counter-balancing a bear bag in a tall tree branch.
As I was hanging that, I heard a snuffling sound immediately behind me and assumed it was my buddy playing a joke. It wasn't. So I ran that bear into the bushes, then took turns keeping it there while packing up. That night, I slept next to the dam with my food hanging off it, over deep water and, in the morning, went and hiked elsewhere.
There's two methods to hanging a bear bag. In the first, you simply throw a rope over a tall limb, then tie your bag to it, pull it up high, and tie the rope off to the trunk. In the second, called a "counter balance" you suspend two roughly-equal bags from a limb, using a stick to poke them into position or bring them down. The latter leaves no accessible connection to the food and is more secure as a result.
The general idea is to find a limb that's far enough off the ground that bags hanging from it can't be reached, even by a bear standing on its hind legs. That limb should also be thin enough that a bear can't shimmy out onto it and long enough that you can hang the bags far enough from the trunk that the bears can't reach them from there either.
But, across the continent, bears have learned to find either the tie-off point of the rope and bite or swipe it in half and to climb far enough up a tree that they can jump down onto bear bags from above, snatching them down mid-fall. Use a tree that's not sturdy enough and the bear will simply shake your counter-balanced bags out of it.
The ability of bears to do this has progressed so greatly that the the US Forest Service now describes the counter-balance method as "Only a delaying tactic." And goes on to state, "If you choose to counter balance your food, be prepared to actively defend it and repeatedly scare bears away from your camp. Even with this negative reinforcement, bears may figure out a way to get your food—some bears will chew the branches off trees to get your food bags…eventually persistent bears will obtain counter balanced food." Well.
A blood hound has the strongest sense of smell of any dog. And a bear smells seven times better than a bloodhound. There's no way to prevent a bear from knowing you have food or locating it, so the basic idea with canisters is to house your food in a rugged container that the bear can't get into. You then place that container outside your camp, leaving it for any local bears to play around with at their leisure.
The manufacturer of Bear Vaults says they're made from, "Super rugged transparent polycarbonate housing resists impacts without shattering!" But, these are the containers Yellow-Yellow learned to open.
Jamie Hagan, the founder of Bear Vault, explained how to Adirondack Life. "Over the summer of 2007 Yellow-Yellow developed a way to open our containers just like a hiker would do—except she would press in the plastic latch with her canine tooth instead of a human finger. It was amazing to see over that summer how she narrowed her attentions on the latch area with each of her successes. By the end of that summer she knew precisely how to open our canisters. We added a second latch in 2008 to foil her, but this did not slow her down at all, she just opened each latch in turn. She was a very unique bear—just what natural selection is really all about."
As commenters have pointed out below, it's not just bears in the Adirondacks either. Bears in Yosemite have been known to take advantage of that park's massive cliffs, throwing canisters off them, then retrieving the smashed, but tasty results from rocks below. And bears have learned how to open dumpsters, open car doors and have even learned an optimal way to smash windshields by putting their front paws together, then rearing up and smashing them straight through.
The Washington State University Bear Center has been studying captive brown bears, ascertaining their ability to use tools for peer-reviewed study. In that, one bear in particular stood out. Kio, a 10-year-old female, really likes glazed doughnuts.
"She manipulates an inanimate object in several steps to help her achieve a goal, which in this case is to obtain food. This fits the definition of tool use," a researcher told the CBC. Kio is able to identify a tree stump tall enough to reach a suspended doughnut, maneuver it into position and rotate it so it's stable enough that she can climb onto it and reach the prize.
"Being able to problem solve allows for a species to 'think outside the box' so to speak," explains the study's researcher. "This may be important if habitat and food resources change."
The ability to develop methods and tools to solve ever-more-difficult problems (campers that better protect their food) fits the very definition of technology. A feat that's made even more impressive by bears' ability to spread this knowledge across a population.
How do they do that? Well, Yellow-Yellow was known to birth several litters of cubs in the time that researchers spent studying her. And baby bears learn like human children do: observing the behavior of their parents and mimicking it until desired results are achieved.
Humans themselves had a hard time ascertaining Yellow-Yellow's canister-opening methods. No close-up observation was ever possible, but by examining the marks on a successfully opened canister, it was determined she used her canines to poke the canister tabs.
Is that ability unique? "I don't think she's smarter than most bears," Ben Tabor, a wildlife technician who tracked Yellow-Yellow told The New York Times. "I think she's had more time to learn."
Whether it's her cubs that have learned the technique or if it's other adult bears who have learned by observing her, one thing's for certain: our current anti-bear food protection arsenal is now obsolete. Through the process of natural selection—survival of the fittest—it's the bears that can most easily access food and who are healthier and live longer as a result that will produce the most offspring, who will then learn how to defeat bear canisters themselves. And thus bear technology spreads.
In response to Yellow-Yellow and her peers' ability to open canisters, Bear Vaults has designed more complicated and layered opening mechanisms, each now defeated. The challenge lies in creating a "lock" that's simple and intuitive enough to be reliably operated by even the dimmest of humans, strong enough to resist a brute force attack by bears, light enough to be carried and complicated enough to keep the bears from problem solving their way into it. Some designs require a tool—such as a nickel or large screwdriver—to open.
The ability to keep bears away from our food isn't just important because losing your dinner to them sucks, but because preventing or minimizing human/bear interaction is the key to protecting that species. A bear that looks to humans as its primary food source is a dangerous bear and a dangerous or problem bear is often dealt with by being shot. As the human habitat spreads farther into previously bear-held territory, interaction between the two species becomes more common and the potential for hostilities between us increases. Developing bearproof technology is as important for the bear as it is for our ability to enjoy a meal cooked on a campfire.
And there is no ideal solution currently available. My own often relies on taking a big, scary dog with me. The bears smell Wiley a long ways off and stay away. But he's not allowed in National Parks, where much bear-on-human contact takes place. In those, bear lockers are available at some popular campsites, but in the backcountry, some combination of counter-balancing and canister is most effective. As well as bear scaring equipment like bear spray, air horns or even flare pistols. But none of that solves the core problem—our technology no longer surpasses the bear's and we're no longer able to keep them out of our food. That's as much of a problem for the bears as it is for us. They're actually too clever for their own good.
Illustration: Jim Cooke
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