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Don’t ruin the bruins

An effort is underway to reduce human-bear interactions in the lower Rogue River canyon

AGNESS — A group of hikers recently traversing the Lower Rogue River Recreation Trail stopped at the black bear-heavy area around Tacoma rapids, not knowing they were about to create a backwoods bruin bash.

The group placed their food in what was supposed to be a bear-proof kevlar container, but they failed to add the requisite aluminum lining. Then they hung that container from a tree, outside of their camp, but carelessly close to the trunk.

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Willis Cayne, of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, demonstrates a bear hoist in the Wild and Scenic section of the Rogue River.

Three bear cubs considered it a call to party, and they responded.

“The cubs went up the tree and started batting it like a pinata,” says Steve DiCicco, a ranger for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

“They poked holes in the container, but never opened it,” DiCicco says.

“After all that batting , they didn’t get the food but they pretty much pureed everything.”

That 2020 incident with the not-so-perfect food cylinder encapsulates the ongoing problem with bear-human food conflicts in the Rogue’s famed Wild and Scenic section, which is one of the most beary places in the lower 48 states.

The 34-mile stretch of the Wild Rogue so revered by whitewater boaters and anglers has long been a hot-bed for conflicts with black bears looking for easy meals in camps and boats.

But a seemingly growing number of hikers following the spectacular 40-mile hike through the Rogue canyon are increasingly getting targeted by bears looking for an easy meal.

Forest Service officials say most savvy backpackers who traverse this trail know the nuances of hiking through bear country. But the relative ease of the trail’s topography and its storied past appears to be drawing more hikers less schooled in the nuances of bear-proofing their camps.

“Hiking has always been this side thing, but recreation has changed,” DiCicco says. “Even if you’re bear-resistant, you have to be prepared.”

The Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, which together manage the Rogue’s Wild and Scenic section, have launched an education effort to reduce human-bear conflicts.

While past efforts have focused on rafters, this current push brings hikers into the fold.

Rafters must receive limited-entry permits before launching and get tutorials on how to bear-proof their camps. That means using any of the 13 electric fences stationed at popular campsites to store their food and garbage, as well as lessons on how to hoist bags of grub outside of a bear’s reach.

But hikers don’t have to check in at the Rand Visitor Center. Their movements are unregulated. Also, there are multiple entry points to the iconic trail, so it’s hard to reach those users, says Amy Hartell, the forest’s recreation program manager.

“It’s a Wild and Scenic river, and people want to see wildlife,” she says. “That’s the draw.”

That means rafters and hikers need to place their food and waste inside the bear-proof electric fences erected at popular campgrounds.

Others need to use the bear-proof aluminum lock boxes installed at some riverside campsites. Another half-dozen locl boxes are eyed for placement at key sand bars and campsites later this summer.

Special food hoists are also scattered along the trail for hikers to hang their food properly without creating their own Cinco de Mayo party for bear cubs or adults.

Bears are opportunists, with hiker food just as tantalizing as rafter food.

“It’s educating people, keeping the bears from being habituated to poor human activity ... and being consistent with that,” Hartell says. “It’s up to us to keep bears safe. As everyone says, a fed bear is a dead bear. So it is a people problem.“

The Forest Service and BLM have long understood this along the Wild Rogue, where the presence of bears has been seen as a massive asset. It was even cited in this stretch’s designation as one of America’s original Wild and Scenic rivers in 1968.

The numbers of bear-human conflicts have dropped, Forest Service statistics show.

Last year’s 12,063 boaters during the limited-entry period of May 15 through Oct. 15 logged 211 bear observations, based on data collected at the Foster Bar takeout.

While there were no reports of aggressive behavior toward people, clearly bears want rafters’ food.

In three incidents, bears stole food from unsecured coolers or trash. Six other times thieving bears were scared away by rafters, usually at night.

Deterrents erected seasonally by river managers clearly can keep those interactions down,“ DiCicco says.

So visitors to this iconic stretch of Wild Rogue not only should go in with the expectation of seeing black bears in the wild, they should also expect them in camp.

“Even if you’re bear-resistant, you’re going to get visited,” DiCicco says. “You have to be prepared.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.