Most Aspen-area backpackers comply with bear-resistant container rule

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
The Bear Keg, a model of bear-resistant food container, is popular at outdoor stores in the Roaring Fork Valley. Bristlecone Mountain Sports in Basalt and Ute Mountaineer in Aspen report brisk sales and rentals of the containers to backpackers.
Scott Condon/The Aspen Times |

The vast majority of backpackers in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness are complying with a new regulation requiring use of bear-resistant containers, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Lead Wilderness Ranger Andrew Larson said roughly 75 percent of overnight visitors encountered by Forest Service employees or volunteers have bear containers for storage of food, trash and other items that could attract bruins.

The exception is in Conundrum Valley. A check by wilderness rangers the evening of July 16 showed 27 groups or individuals staying overnight. Eight had bear-resistant containers, 16 didn’t, and three weren’t contacted, Larson said.

The White River National Forest Supervisor’s Office approved an emergency order July 14 that requires overnight users to carry the bear-resistant containers throughout the entire 162,333-acre Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.

Larson said he is pleased with the overall compliance and not surprised that’s its lower in Conundrum Valley, where most visitors head for the hot springs.

“Conundrum visitors generally aren’t going for a backcountry experience,” he said. Many visitors in that valley are first-time backpackers. They don’t consult the Forest Service website or other online sources about backpacking regulations, according to Larson.

“Conundrum users, they just don’t know (about the regulation) until they get to the trailhead,” he said.

Focus on education

The 75 percent compliance rate for a new regulation is “really good,” Larson said. It usually takes some time before education is effective and word sinks in.

Larson and his team of six wilderness rangers haven’t been writing tickets for non-compliance yet because they are trying to make sure everyone is aware of the rule.

“This is a big change for Colorado backpackers,” he said.

There was lengthy internal debate when the emergency regulation was passed about what to do when backpackers are found without the proper containers. Ultimately, the Forest Service decided rangers couldn’t order people out of the backcountry for a multi-hour hike if discovered late in the afternoon without a container, Larson said.

Instead, wilderness rangers, other Forest Service employees and volunteers with the Forest Conservancy will explain why the rule was enacted when they encounter scofflaws. Wilderness rangers carry extra cord and will secure a party’s attractants in a tree — at least 10 feet off the ground, 4 feet below a branch and 4 feet out from the trunk.

That’s not the ideal solution, he said, because even when food and trash is hung in a tree “textbook” style, a smart bear can still get at it, he said.

Bear-resistant containers also can provide a false sense of security. They shouldn’t be kept at a camp. They should be stored a minimum of 200 feet from camp, downwind, downstream and downhill whenever possible.

There was an incident in Capitol Creek Valley recently where backpackers apparently used the container properly to store attractants at night without issue. The following day, they put the container in a tent while they day hiked to Capitol Lake. They returned to find a tent slashed and squashed, and the container had been moved but not opened.

“We’re having a big problem there,” Larson said. Two bears have been invading camps in the valley.

Backpackers take it in stride

Larson said his team hasn’t fielded many complaints about the regulation from backpackers they encounter.

“No one has been really resistant to the idea,” he said. “People grumble about the weight.”

The approved bear canisters are bulky and relatively heavy, particularly for people who weigh items by ounces to reduce their burden.

A canister called the Bear Keg by a company called Counter Assault has been a big seller at Bristlecone Mountain Sports in Basalt.

“We were caught a little off guard with the demand” when the regulation was enacted, said Bristlecone manager Josh Streblow. The store is selling about 10 canisters per week and has them prominently displayed near the front counter and with a backpacker mannequin display. Bristlecone rents out four Bear Kegs and has them booked on the weekends.

Using the container definitely requires new packing strategies. The Bear Keg has a 9-inch diameter and is 13.75 inches high. It weighs 3.5 pounds. Three locks on the lid require use of a coin, key or similar object to unlock.

Ute Mountaineer in Aspen is selling seven to 10 Bear Kegs per week. The 11 available for rent are in almost constant demand, according to floor manager Nathan Martinez. The Ute’s staff advises backpackers to pack the large container with anything with a scent and place it low in the pack, just above the sleeping bag compartment. It’s big and heavy enough that it shouldn’t be on the top or strapped to the front, he said.

Both stores aim to carry additional, lighter bear-resistant containers that are still accepted by the Forest Service.

Martinez said most customers have been receptive to using the bear-resistant containers. “It’s easy to tell them why it’s needed,” he said, noting the containers are required in many national parks and areas where bears are active.

Streblow also said most customers who buy or rent the container at Bristlecone take it in stride.

“They’re just getting on board with it,” he said. “They want to get out and follow the law.”

Reaction outweighs problem?

Carbondale resident Justin Patrick used a bear-resistant container under protest for a trip to a secluded destination in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness last weekend. As he stuffed the unwieldy canister to the bottom of his pack prior to the trip, he wrote a letter to the editor of local newspapers protesting the new requirement, though with a sense of humor.

“Is anyone at the Forest Service aware of how large these things are?” Patrick asked. “I could take a bath in it. I could pack enough rice to cross the Himalayas. If Shamu needs a vacation tank …”

Post-trip, Patrick said carrying the canister was an inconvenience, but a rule he will continue to comply with. His bigger concern, he said, is that the Forest Service passed the rule based on data and that it has evidence the proposed solution will really work.

Patrick, who described himself as an avid backpacker, said he believes bear encounters with humans are rare except in high-use areas such as Crater Lake. He believes applying the rule to the entire wilderness was an overreaction to an isolated problem.

Forest Service personnel said when the rule was passed that the last injuries from bear attacks in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness was in 2011. However, there have been numerous encounters and multiple reports of property damage in more recent summers.

The National Forest Supervisor’s Office didn’t want to wait until there was an injury to take precautions.

“It’s a personal safety thing,” Larson said. He noted that there is a generation of bears that has learned to associate tents and human activity with food. Even with 100 percent compliance, it will take years before no bears associate tents and human camps with food, he said.

The Forest Service targeted a smaller problem area with an emergency order last summer. It covered about 7,000 acres focused on Crater Lake and West Maroon Valley. Backpackers would hike just outside the boundary and camp there without canisters. Bears followed the campers, White River National Forest biologist Phil Nyland previously told The Aspen Times.

The current emergency order is scheduled to expire in December. Making it a permanent rule will require an environmental study. No decision has been announced by the White River National Forest Supervisor’s Office on whether that will be pursued.

Larson said tickets will be issued this year only if there is an encounter that was caused by a person not using a bear-resistant canister. The Forest Service reserves the right to levy a fine of as much as $5,000, though it has the ability to make it much less.


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