The grizzly gear testers

There’s just one place in the country where commercial products can be tested against live grizzly bears—to save other bears’ lives

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The grizzly towered over RovR’s Colorado 85 cooler: It’s humped back hunched, front paws placed squarely on the cooler’s lid, the beast pressed downwards with all 600 pounds of hairy weight: once, twice, three times—attempting to crush it, to spill it’s contents, but to no avail. Frustrated, the creature growled, gnawing at one corner, pushing the plastic box around, slamming it on the ground, bouncing it in water, standing on it, trying its hardest to wedge a claw underneath the lid, anything to get at the fragrant, meaty morsels within. 

Much to the bear’s dismay (and the team at RovR’s relief), the beast wasn’t successful. RovR’s Colorado 85 had survived the requisite 60 minutes in the bear cage—the cooler would officially receive an Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) “bear resistant” stamp of approval. That certification comes at a cost, in design and development time and resources and in money paid to the IGBC for the test itself. 

But it’s completely worth it, says Kyle Fulmer, director of operations at RovR. Not just because he wants to protect the food stored in people’s RovR’s coolers, but more importantly that bear resistant cooler offers massive conservation value. 

“If a bear gets trained to go into places where people are, then usually it’s not good for the bear in the long term,” Fulmer explains. “[IGBC certification] is not a free service. But we feel like it’s valuable to do . . . It keeps bears safe.”

That’s really the whole point of the IGBC’s product testing program. It’s the only program of its kind in the U.S. where manufacturers can bring their products to be tested by legit grizzly bears. If you’ve ever used something advertised as “bear resistant,” it went through the IGBC’s testing program at the West Yellowstone Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center. No other program can dole out official “bear resistant” certifications.

“Over the last number of years we’ve seen a lot of coolers coming through for testing,” says Scott Jackson with the U.S. Forest Service’s National Carnivore Program, who works closely with the IGBC and Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center. But, he says, their grizzly bears test products of all kinds and sizes—from trash cans to food storage sheds and food canisters. 

It works like this: Manufacturers pay a fee and submit their product to the testing facility, at the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center—a non-profit accredited zoo that rescues wild grizzly bears. The product (whatever might be) is filled with bait (like raw fish or dog food) and placed inside the enclosure.

Enter: The grizzly. 

“They all take their turns at the products, so it’s different bears and different products and different dates,” Jackson explains. “But they’ve all had quite a bit of experience working with these products, and it’s really good for enrichment purposes for the bears. It gives them something to do and they seem to enjoy the challenge.”

Over the years, Jackson says, some bears have shown more testing talent than others. But generally they’re all pretty good at getting into products that were designed to keep them out.

“Some years, two-thirds of the products fail and a third pass. Other years, it’s kind of fifty-fifty,” says Jackson. Typically, though, he says the IGBC fails more products than it passes.

The IGBC was established shortly after grizzly bears made it onto the federal endangered species list in 1975. That’s when land management agencies like the National Forest Service started requiring stricter habitat management policies to reduce bear mortality.

“One of the ways that was deemed important was to reduce human conflict with bears and therefore reduce human-caused mortality,” Jackson explains. “That meant keeping bears from [getting into] human foods, whether that’s at a campsite or a garbage facility, or in a neighborhood.”

So, the Forest Service started implementing food storage orders, requiring people to keep their food and garbage unavailable to bears while on public lands. At first that just meant keeping those items in a car, or hung in a tree, Jackson says. As time went on, though, land management programs started to look for more effective methods. 

Jackson recalls the first storage containers deemed bear resistant in the 1980s: big, beefy government-owned metal boxes with heavy latches and impenetrable doors. Then through the ‘90s, the IGBC saw a surge in commercial interest—businesses wanted to get their products certified as bear resistant, too. So the IGBC decided to formalize its process. 

“It was in the early 2000s when we first started developing some more consistent testing protocols and putting products in with captive bears with some specific criteria to determine what was a ‘pass’ test and what was a ‘fail,’” Jackson says. 

For a long time they approached it like a consumer report, describing how long certain products lasted in the bear cage before the bears broke into them. If a product lasted 10, 20, 30 or 60 minutes, manufacturers could advertise it as such. However, they began to notice thresholds in the data. If a product made it past the 30 minute mark, it would almost always make it to the 40 and 50 minute mark. And if it made it past 60 minutes, the bears would almost always lose interest before they got inside. 

Eventually, Jackson says they determined that 60 minutes of bear-to-product contact (meaning the bear is actively trying to chew on or pry into the object) was a sufficient benchmark for the test. 

During that hour, if the bear gains access to the bait, even barely, by prying open the lid or ripping open the sides, then it’s considered a failure and the producer is sent back to the drawing board. If, however, after 60 minutes, a product makes it out of the IGBC testing enclosure with the seal still intact and the bait untouched on the inside—even if the outer shell is punctured, ripped up and torn—the product receives its bear resistant certification. 

“That’s bear [I]resistant[I], not bear proof,” Jackson adds, seriously. “Given enough time, bears can chew through just about anything.”

In a typical season (April to September), the IGBC tests somewhere between 40 and 50—sometimes as many as 90—different products. That means the wait-list for manufacturers can get fairly long. And it isn’t free, either. Getting a cooler tested costs $725, getting residential garbage cans tested costs $875; getting an HD video card with footage of the test afterwards is $70, and getting the IGBC post-test “technical evaluation” is $200. 

Fulmer says that’s all totally worth it, for RovR, and for the bears. 

“We’re always chasing the highest degree of quality we can and we get great feedback from the interagency,” he says. Even though its coolers all passed the test on their first try, RovR has still used the information from the video and technical evaluation to improve its products post-test. 

Of course, grizzly gear testing has pretty high entertainment value on its own. And the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center capitalizes on that: It advertises what products are being tested, when, and by which bears, so curious spectators know what to expect for the show. And, of course, the manufacturers can attend to watch their products go through the IGBC grizzly gauntlet in real time. It can turn into a very exciting event, according to Jackson.

“Sometimes people start cheering for the bear, or they’re cheering for the product,” he says. “It’s really popular.”

No matter how much these tests can feel like a spectator sport, though, Jackson never forgets how important they are. These IGBC grizzly resistant certification trials have a very serious purpose, and neither he, nor the IGBC, nor the Discovery Center, nor manufactures like RovR ever let fall out of sight. This is about protecting bears, not about protecting food or entertaining people.

“If [bears] get a food reward from a cooler or trash can, they’re going to become more and more food conditioned, less wary of people, and more likely to get into future conflicts,” Jackson says. 

More often than not, that scenario ends with that bear being removed from the population—often via euthanization. 

“We’re not just doing this for the bears’ enrichment, we’re not just doing it for your viewing pleasure,” he says. The aim is always and has always been to reduce human-bear conflict. “There’s a real conservation goal here.”

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