WEST YELLOWSTONE, Mont. — The Gardiner Bruins beat the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center's bears in a one-hour contest on a recent Friday in West Yellowstone.
It was not a sporting event.
Teacher Mike Wagner's Gardiner High School shop class built a commercial-sized, 500-pound, bear-resistant trash bin to be used by businesses in Gardiner.
But before it was loaded up with garbage, one question remained: Was the bin really bear-resistant? The class traveled to West Yellowstone to find out.
The Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center is a nonprofit facility that takes bears that can no longer survive in the wild and displays them in a setting designed to educate visitors about bears.
As a sideline, the center provides testing for companies or individuals hoping to market a product as bear-resistant. GWDC Director John Heine said the center averages about one bear test a week. The testing provides stimulation for the bears as well as giving visitors an opportunity to watch bear behavior, he said.
The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee — whose members represent region-wide state and federal agencies — working with the private nonprofit Living With Wildlife Foundation has even created standards that a product must meet before earning the "bear-resistant" label. The IGBC website says the committee is currently updating the standards, but in general, a product has to withstand one hour of bear contact to earn the label.
Smelly fish were placed inside the Gardiner students' bin. As an added attractant, a tempting mixture containing peanut butter, jelly and more fish was smeared on the outside of the bin.
"Every bear at the center had a go at it," Heine said, including a 925-pound Alaskan brown bear named Sam.
"He tipped it over several times, pried on the doors, but then he just got bored and left it alone," Wagner said.
The students were "quite excited" to test their creation, Wagner said. They were proud to see their work, especially their welding — welding joints being the weakest spots in a product — hold up against the bears, he said..
After an hour's worth of biting, scratching, licking and tipping the Dumpster-sized bin, the bin had sustained a few scratches and a bent handle. The doors and hinges held. The bears did not breach the container. The students' bin was, indeed, bear-resistant.
The project is a joint effort including the Gardiner School, Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks and Bear Aware Gardiner, a group of Gardiner residents working to keep trash and other attractants inaccessible to bears. Keeping bears out of human garbage helps prevent bear-human conflicts, which can lead to human injury or death and having to destroy the bear, BAG co-founder Bill Berg has said.
BAG, which has worked for the past several years providing bear-resistant residential trash bins throughout the Gardiner basin, found that the residential bins weren't working for commercial customers. The trash cans, the same size as those used by the city of Livingston, weren't large enough for commercial use. Consequently, some Gardiner businesses were still storing their garbage in the back of open pickup trucks — sometimes overnight — before hauling it to the town's green box transfer station, about four miles north of town, Berg said.
The garbage in the back of pickups presented a temptation to bears.
The 500-pound container tested April 27 is not meant to be hauled to the transfer station, but to remain in one place, Berg explained. Bagged trash will be loaded into the bin and then the bags can be transferred to a pickup truck and hauled later to Gardiner's green box transfer station.
FWP hauled the bin from Gardiner to West Yellowstone and also helped BAG secure a $10,000 grant from the Living With Wildlife Foundation, based in northwestern Montana.
Wagner said they spent about $1,200 from the grant money on steel for the bin. The grant also covered an additional $2,500 for materials, including tools the class did not have but needed for the construction project.
The remainder of the grant money will go toward more bins, BAG co-founder Ilona Popper said.