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Forest Service aims to reduce bear problems with backcountry canisters

Jun 17, 2015

Andrew Larson with the White River National Forest holds a bear proof canister. The containers hold food and other smelly products. Next year wilderness backcountry users will be required to use them.
Credit Marci Krivonen

The White River National Forest is encouraging backcountry campers to use bear-proof canisters to store their food. It’s an education effort this year and will become law next summer. Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen reports.

The Ute Mountaineer in Aspen is one of a handful of stores in the Roaring Fork Valley renting and selling bear-proof canisters. The hard plastic, round containers have names like “Bear Keg” and “Bear Vault.” Nathan Martinez is store manager.

"They’re basically locked on the top and you've got to carry a nickel or key to close it," he says. "Once you lock it, it’ll hold those little screws down and it’ll shut."

The canisters weigh between 2 and 4 pounds and will be required luggage for backpackers heading into the Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness in the White River National Forest.

"It’s going to be a long transition for people to start fully complying with that because it’s a big change," says Andrew Larson, lead wilderness ranger for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District.

This summer, Forest Service staff will be out educating campers. Next summer, canisters will be required by law - not for day hikers - but for those overnighting in the popular Wilderness area.

"Our reason for requiring bear canisters is that we have just had a total failure of people not being able to hang their food properly, and the bears are getting into those “bear-hangs.” So now we just have these habituated bears that are becoming a problem every year."

Yosemite National Park has required backcountry wilderness campers to use bear canisters for more than a decade. Spokesman Scott Gediman says there was resistance at first.

"People have remarked that they’re heavy and bulky and they take up a lot of room," he says. "It’s not an issue anymore because people who backpack around here just know that when you’re going to go into the backcountry, you just automatically say, ‘Oh, I gotta bring my canister.’"

At Aspen’s Ute Mountaineer, the canisters cost between $70 and $80/piece and are rented for $8 a day. Manager Nathan Martinez says already today, he’s rented two. He thinks they work.

"I haven’t heard of anyone losing them yet. They are effective and, bears kind of know what they are. Black bears are really intelligent."

Though the new canister rule won’t officially be in effect until next summer, Forest Service officials say if bear problems arise this year, an emergency order could put it in place sooner.