Food Storage Basics in Bear Country

Grizzly Bear

Grizzly bear. Photo courtesy of Carolyn Fox.

Viewing a grizzly bear in the wild is a top wish list item for many West Yellowstone visitors. But what if instead of seeing a bear in the meadows or forests of Yellowstone National Park, you find one in your backyard or campsite?

Grizzly bear activity near human developments in the Greater Yellowstone region can be dangerous for visitors and bears alike. Recent incidents of grizzly bear activity in the area highlight the importance of practicing proper food storage and attractant management when visiting West Yellowstone and the surrounding region.

Bear behavior

Greater Yellowstone is home to roughly 700 grizzly bears. The bears have to work hard to survive and are nearly always in search of food during the warm months in preparation for winter hibernation. During this time, grizzly bears can eat up to 90 pounds of food a day. With those needs in mind, it’s no surprise that the bears are attracted to the easy calorie sources that can be found around human developments. Proper storage of food, garbage, and other attractants is important for visitors in order to deter bear activity.

Grizzly bears will investigate anything that smells like food and that could potentially be a source of calories. Coolers, garbage, pet food, cosmetics, lotions, and deodorants are all common attractants that, if stored improperly, can entice a curious grizzly bear to investigate a vehicle, yard, or campsite. When a grizzly bear acquires food from a human development, the bear will remember the food reward and could return to the location again.

“We call it becoming food-conditioned,” said Randall Scarlett, a wildlife biologist with the Custer-Gallatin National Forest outside of West Yellowstone. “They learn that humans may have something they want and human developments are something they want to investigate.”

A food-conditioned bear that continues to return to the same human development typically has to be removed by management means, which Scarlett says usually translates to trapping and euthanizing the bear. If a food-conditioned bear is moved, it will most often either return to the location of the food reward or repeat the same pattern of behavior around human developments in the new area.

Recent incidents

Grizzly bear incidents around West Yellowstone in recent years have highlighted the importance of attractant management practices, especially for visitors staying in seasonal lodging, short-term rentals, and campsites. Bears have opened improperly latched dumpsters, broken into outbuildings in search of garbage, torn up vehicles with coolers inside, and taken food from campsites, just to name a few examples.

No humans were injured in these encounters, but the bears face potentially lethal removal if they become food-conditioned.

Besides the threat of physical injury, individuals can also face monetary penalties or imprisonment if they violate one of the local rules or ordinances mandating proper attractant management. The U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, the City of West Yellowstone, and Gallatin County all have various requirements calling for food, garbage, and other attractants to be kept in bear-proof storage.

Best practices for food storage and attractant management

Bear Resistant Trash Container Testing

Bear testing a garbage container for bear-resistance at the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center.

Proper food storage and attractant management are paramount for the safety of area visitors and bears alike. But what are the best practices for food storage in bear country?

  • Store food, beverages, garbage, and other attractants in bear-proof containers or inside a building. Attractants include anything a bear would find interesting and could eat to gain calories—even lip balm, toothpaste, and body lotion!
  • Attractants can be stored in vehicles as long as the windows are closed. If the windows are cracked, a bear can break the windows and gain access to the vehicle.
  • Do not leave coolers or garbage outside. A common mistake to avoid is placing garbage on the porch of a rental property—even if only for a short time.
  • Dispose of waste in bear-resistant cans or dumpsters. These containers have a specific latching mechanism, so be attentive and ensure that they are secured.
  • When camping, food and attractants can be stored in a closed vehicle, a bear-proof storage box, or hung at least 10 feet from the ground and four feet from a tree trunk.

“Realize that bears can be anywhere, anytime,” advises Scarlett. Grizzly bears are used to seeing a lot of people around Greater Yellowstone, and they don’t always mind being near human developments. On your next West Yellowstone adventure, it is important to be mindful of proper food storage and attractant management practices for the safety of humans and the continued health of the area’s resident grizzly bears.