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The Leader

Bears Keep Out!
Grappling with Food Storage Issues in the Rocky Mountains

By Worth Allen, NOLS Intern
Reprinted from The Leader, Summer 2002, Vol. 17, No. 3

  Grizzly Bear
  A backcountry neighbor: NOLS Rocky Mountain courses share the wilderness with grizzlies.
Photo: Fredrik Norrsell
The 80 NOLS courses that head into the Rocky Mountains this summer will have plenty to learn, including how to share their wilderness classroom with bears. During the past few years, as grizzly bear reintroduction programs have enjoyed tremendous support in the greater Yellowstone area, the bears have been creeping southward, attempting to reclaim parts of their original range. Due to increased black bear interaction, and a number of grizzly sightings in the southern Wind River Range in recent years, the Forest Service developed plans to implement a new food storage order this summer. In an effort to minimize human/bear conflicts, the order requires all backcountry visitors to the southern Winds to store all food, beverages, animal carcasses and trash out of the reach of bears. In a state where tensions flare more easily over land control issues than nearly anything else, the new Federal regulation has been met with varying degrees of resistance from local residents near NOLS Rocky Mountain in Lander, Wyo.

As the order’s April 1 implementation date approached, residents of Fremont County, home to Lander, grew increasingly agitated not only about the changes that they would have to make in their backcountry habits, but also about the presence of bears in their county. This irritation culminated at a County Commissioners meeting on March 12. Citing a “threat to public health, safety and livelihood,” the commissioners voted to ban “the presence, introduction, or reintroduction” of grizzly bears and gray wolves within Fremont County. Several minutes later, the commission passed a second resolution that “prohibits the U.S. Forest Service to implement the proposed food storage order within the boundaries of Fremont County.”

Both resolutions, which were unanimous, drew instant rebukes from the Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service. Wyoming’s senior USFWS Agent, Dominic Domenici, pointed out that both bears and wolves are federally protected species and that “Federal law says they can be here.” Domenici also gently reminded the Commissioners that “county law does not take precedence over Federal law or State law.”

Presenting a problem for both Fish and Wildlife and the Forest Service is the overwhelming community support that has endorsed the Commissioners’ actions. An overflow crowd of 150 citizens packed into the March 12 meeting, with many more spilling into the hallways. With an unusual show of unanimity, the crowd joined in uproarious applause upon the passing of both resolutions, leaving no doubt about where much of the public stood on the matter. Since then, letters published in newspapers across the state of Wyoming have declared skyrocketing levels of support, enthusiasm and devotion for the Fremont County Commissioners. A small group of citizens who support the bears’ presence in the Southern Winds has tried to make its’ voice heard through opposing editorials. Despite one dissenting resident’s suggestion that “If these officials want to take the wild out of our county, maybe they should move to New Jersey,” the commissioners appear to have accurately spoken for their community against bears and wolves.

Similar to so many other hostile clashes between federal and local agencies in the West, the food storage order has roots tied to the disproportionate amount of federally owned land in this part of the country. For example, federal land comprises a full 70 percent of Wyoming’s Lincoln County, located along the state’s Western border with Idaho. Supporting his Fremont counterparts, the Lincoln County Commissioner recently pointed out that “any time they make a rule on public land it affects us in some way, usually economically.” Primarily because of this unexpected public outcry, the Forest Service has indefinitely delayed the food storage order’s implementation.

As parents, softball coaches, anglers and book club members, NOLS employees are deeply interested in what is best for the community that we live and work in. With wilderness education and safety being two of the school’s deepest core values, we believe that the Forest Service’s efforts to protect the safety of both humans and bears are in the best interests of our community. We agree with the Forest Service that keeping human food unavailable to bears, and thus keeping the animals from becoming habituated, is one of the best ways to avoid human-bear conflicts.

Having used bear canisters, poles and boxes for nearly a decade, NOLS is currently working with the Forest Service to help the agency develop the most practical methods of implementing the food-storage regulations. We are partnering with the agency to test possible solutions ranging from hanging food from cliffs and crevasses to surrounding food with electric fences. In response to the agency’s request, we are providing photographs and analysis of all our food storage methods, both experimental and proven. With the right amount of education from the Forest Service, and flexibility from backcountry users, the new food storage order can be successfully implemented, promoting a peaceful coexistence between two of our planet’s most powerful species.

NOLS Intern Worth Allen graduated from a Semester in (SAF 1/16/99) and an Alaska Backpacking course (6/13/97). His book chronicling his semester adventure, In Mind, In Country, was published by Western Carolina University Press.




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