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Ask WTA: How Are Bear Cans Tested?

Posted by Rachel Wendling at Feb 17, 2021 11:57 AM |
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If you’ve ever hauled a bear canister along on a backpacking trip, you know they’re sturdy. And, if you’ve ever tried to open one while tired or in the dark, you know they can be tricky to get into. But how do the manufacturers of approved bear canisters actually know that a bear can’t get into them?

If you’ve ever hauled a bear canister along on a backpacking trip, you know they’re sturdy. And, if you’ve ever tried to open one while tired or in the dark, you know they can be tricky to get into. But how do the manufacturers of approved bear canisters actually know that a bear can’t get into them?

The answer is straightforward. The canisters are tested by real bears. Grizzly bears, in fact, who live at the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center in Montana. (While hikers in Washington aren’t likely to encounter a grizzly, black bears are common. And if a grizzly can’t get into a container, it is also safe from the smaller black bears.)

A close up shot of a grizzly bear attempting to chew through a hard sided food container at the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center.
Yes, this bear is cute. No, you do not want them to eat your food. So make sure your bear canister is certified bear-resistant. Photo courtesy the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center.

For testing, the bear canister, cooler or other item is filled with tempting food (fish, berries, honey, that sort of thing) and then left with the captive grizzlies. If, after an hour of trying, the bears weren’t able to get into the container or get food, the container passes. It’s then certified by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) as bear resistant. (If the bears open the container, they enjoy a snack. And presumably come back next time even more keen to do their jobs well.)

The IGBC, which is made up of federal and state agencies, was created in 1983 with the goal of keeping grizzly bears in their habitat. With that goal in mind, in 1989 the IGBC created consistent methods to test bear-resistant products to reduce human-bear conflicts. For about 15 years, that has included the bears at the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center.

And why is it important that a bear doesn’t get your food? (Beyond the fact that you’d then go hungry?) Well, a bear that gets human food is more likely to become dangerous to people, which gives it a higher chance of being killed or placed in captivity. In fact, the testing bears ended up in captivity because they became a problem by foraging for human food.

So, protect your lunch and protect a bear. And go watch a video of bears trying to break into bear cans — be sure to watch for their “CPR” move. You’ll know it when you see it.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of Washington Trails magazine. Support trails as a member WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.

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