Outside Magazine profiles a facility that’s found a way to provide nuisance bears with a useful career.
Nearly every bear at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center (GWDC) in West Yellowstone, Montana, has a similar backstory. The center is a nonprofit educational facility that houses grizzly bears unable to survive in the wild for one reason or another. It is also home to three small packs of captive-born wolves, a handful of injured raptors, and five American river otters.
When a wildlife official from anywhere in the American West, Alaska, or Canada has a nuisance grizzly bear and wants to avoid euthanizing it, the GWDC is often near the top of their call list. (Unfortunately, due to the centerâ€™s limited capacity, the answer is frequently that it canâ€™t take another bear. In that case, says Randy Gravatt, the GWDCâ€™s container testing coordinator, bears typically have to be euthanized.)
Coram, a male grizzly whose weight fluctuates between 550 and 680 pounds depending on the season, wandered through Kalispell, Montana, checking porches for dog kibble. Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks officials trapped him three times before he ended up at the GWDC. Spirit, a female grizzly, couldnâ€™t stay away from a golf course in Whitefish; she was relocated six timesâ€”once as far as 100 miles away, but she kept finding her way back to that easy source of foodâ€”before one of her cubs was hit by a car and she was taken to the West Yellowstone facility.
Coram, Spirit, and the six other bears that live at the GWDC arenâ€™t just wasting away in captivity, though. They have an important job to do: they test containers to determine whether theyâ€™re bear-resistant.
Every spring, Gravatt begins filling coolers, bike panniers, backpacking canisters, and trash dumpsters sent in by big-name manufacturers like Yeti, Cabelaâ€™s, Pelican, and Igloo with veggies, dry dog food, fish, honey, andâ€”the bearsâ€™ favoritesâ€”peanut butter. â€œThey donâ€™t really like mushrooms or onions,â€ Gravatt says, adding that the bears will eat just about anything else in their quest to pack in around 15,000 calories per day during the summer (more when theyâ€™re getting ready to hibernate).
Once the containers are full of goodies, Gravatt gets them in front of the bears, which poke, prod, claw, bite, smash, and sometimes use what he calls â€œthe CPR method,â€ wherein bears place their front paws atop a container and pump, almost as if theyâ€™re trying to revive the unfortunate object. If the container remains intact to a certain standardâ€”gaps, tears, and holes canâ€™t be larger than an inch for trash containers; for food containers, itâ€™s a mere quarter-inchâ€”it gets the bearsâ€™ literal seal of approval: a sticker depicting a grizzlyâ€™s head and shoulders and the productâ€™s certification number. The GWDC is the only testing facility in the world where products can earn a certificate from the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC).
The committee was formed in 1983, a decade after the Endangered Species Act made it clear that the grizzly bear, with its capital-e Endangered status, needed coordinated management. About 450 productsâ€”ranging from lightweight plastic bear canisters for backpacking to the heavy-duty coolers you might bring on a multiday river trip to industrial-grade metal dumpstersâ€”have earned a place on the IGBCâ€™s list of bear-resistant products, says Scott Jackson, leader of the U.S. Forest Serviceâ€™s National Carnivore Program and adviser to the IGBC.
There are several good potential black bear candidates for the same job residing on my 300-acre Pennsylvania farm right now.