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The number of grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park has tripled since they were placed on the endangered species list in the mid-1970s. Last summer marked an all-time high for human/bear conflicts there. And now in a strange twist, some of the bears involved in those conflicts are helping try out new camping products that are meant to keep the bears out. Wyoming Public Radio's Tristan Ahtone explains.
TRISTAN AHTONE: In the northwest corner of Wyoming, grizzly bears are a way of life. Take Shane Trotter, for instance. He thought deer were getting into his livestock feed, until he found bear tracks.
Mr. SHANE TROTTER: Part that scares me, I came out here twice Monday night with my shotgun, going to scare the deer off, thinking it was a deer.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. TROTTER: I'm glad I didn't run into anything else.
AHTONE: Once bears get hooked on human and livestock food, they become bold and persistent in order to get that food. Ultimately bears who act like this have to be dealt with.
Mark Bruscino is head of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department's Bear Management program.
Mr. MARK BRUSCINO (Game and Fish Department, Wyoming): Particularly young bears. They learn that dumpsters and garbage cans are a good place to find food. And under the cover of darkness, they'll continue that behavior for life.
AHTONE: Of last year's record 250 bear conflicts in and around Yellowstone, wildlife managers had to euthanize, or send to zoos, nearly a dozen bears. But some bears that have been removed from the population get a chance to help prevent future conflicts, like those just over the border in Montana.
Mr. RANDY GRAVETT (Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center): My name is Randy Gravett, and I am the facilities manager here at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, West Yellowstone, Montana.
AHTONE: Here at the center, Yellowstone tourists get to come see wolves, birds and bears up close. But the grizzlies they get to see also provide a service. They test bear-resistant products.
Mr. GRAVETT: The protocol is 60 minutes of contact time. So the bear has to work on that container for a total of 60 minutes, and if they do not get in, it then passes the test.
AHTONE: These tests are important because in a number of counties, cities and national parks, using bear-resistant products is the law. Today, Gravett's bears are testing something called a super-cooler - a giant gray cooler about the size of a dumpster - by filling it with dog kibble and peanut butter and leaving it out for the grizzlies. It doesn't take long for the bears to get interested.
Mr. GRAVETT: So we have Kobuk, a grizzly bear from Alaska that weighs 600 pounds, and he is really trying to get in that container right now.
AHTONE: Kobuk flips the giant cooler over easily, while the kibble rattles around inside.
(Soundbite of rattling)
AHTONE: He checks the lid and latches of the container, examines the padlocks and rubber straps that keep the lid locked down, then flips it again. After an hour, he's managed to get the lid partly open. Gravett calls time, and animal care manager Dan Meates goes in to inspect the cooler.
He finds that Kobuk has ripped off the cooler's plastic seals and emptied its contents through the drain hole.
Mr. DAN MEATES (Animal Care Manager): Well, the good thing is they didn't get into the main capsule itself, so the padlocks on the end seem pretty good. Obviously the rubber latching system, that did not work.
AHTONE: Dozens of companies offer bear-resistant dumpsters, food containers, trashcans and just about anything else you might need bear-proofed. And, Randy Gravett says, those types of products will help prevent future conflicts.
Mr. GRAVETT: Our bears have been testing for about 10 years now, and that's a good thing. And, of course, we want those containers to pass the test, because it will ultimately benefit those bears out in the wild.
AHTONE: And benefit people who live and play in bear country, like Yellowstone.
For NPR News, I'm Tristan Ahtone.