Crafty Bears Foil Campers in the Adirondacks

As campers flock to the Adirondacks this summer, many of them tote bear-resistant containers to store their GORP, smores, and outdoor edibles in what is known as the BearVault. But before you stash the canister in your pack, be aware that a number of bears are out-smarting the latches and lid in order to sample your tasty treats.

Hikers who make it up to an area called the High Peaks are telling officials that a black bear named Yellow-Yellow (because of two tags of that color in its ear) has learned to pry its way, via teeth and claw, into the containers that many campers carry, as you may have read in The New York Times. (Check out their cool graphics.)

"People forget that bears spend their time in the woods doing complicated things to get food," said New York State Department of Environmental Conservation wildlife technician Ben Tabor when I talked to him on the phone. "The bears are always learning new tricks."

Yellow-yellow may not be the only bear that has manipulated its way in to the canisters. Tabor said that another bear, Blue-Green (also named for its tags), may have figured out how to pop the tops.

Despite these recent discoveries, negative human-bear interactions in the region have been relatively low in recent years. The Department of Environmental Conservation logged 61 last year in the High Peaks compared to 374 in 2004. But these things go in cycles, reported Tabor, and he's expecting the number to go back up this year.

Maintaining an air of wilderness by managing both bears and humans who come to visit the park can be difficult, said Tabor. Forty percent of the campers are first-time park users and aren't familiar with bear canister protocols, making it difficult for rangers to enforce regulations that keep visitors safe. Yet ensuring human safety is of utmost importance.

When campers have a bear encounter, they often identify the culprit by the tags in its years. As part of a study Tabor was involved with in 2004, he and his coworkers tagged seven bears to find out where they denned, how healthy they were, and how many cubs they had. Although the data has yet to be published, the information they collected gives them a pretty good idea of how many bears are out there and what there doing.

The number of black bears in the Adirondacks is pretty stable, said Tabor, but he expects people to see an increasing number in other popular camping areas like the Catskills and the Allegheny Mountains. As agricultural fields revert to forests on the East Coast, bears are coming back into the region--an exciting prospect for many hikers. After all, a black bear, or any mammal larger than a rat, for that matter, can be a novel sight for an urbanite. But those occurrences also increase the possibility of having a negative human-bear interaction.

Rural homeowners may also think differently than the urban camper when bears become conditioned to finding food in garbage cans or on porches. For more on that issue, though, check out the Green Guru column from Audubon's July-August issue before the problem is barely tolerable. Don't you just love puns?

This post can also be read on Audubon's blog, The Perch, at