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Food Storage Order – What does it mean?

5/5/24 – If you follow along with BWCA news, chances are you’ve seen some recent hubbub about the new food storage order from the Forest Service. As an outfitter, we received a copy of the official order and had a chance to chat with the Forest Service officials at our annual spring meeting. So, what does the order mean for you, the BWCA camper?

The order states that when inside the BWCA Wilderness, you must have your food and other scented items either:

  • 1. In your line of sight;
  • 2. Hung in a tree (see below for suggested hanging methods); or
  • 3. Stored in a certified bear resistant container.

Here are some FAQ’s that have come up:

  • “Does this apply to portaging? What if I have to double portage?” -Yes, it applies. You cannot leave your food unattended on a portage unless it is in an approved bear resistant container or hung in a tree.
  • “Weren’t these already the rules?” -Kind of. These have always been the recommended guidelines for food storage in the BWCAW. The food storage order makes the recommendations into requirements. The effect of this is that USFS Rangers can write tickets if they see food store improperly now.
  • “What’s the fine?” -Any infraction of BWCA rules and regulations carries a potential fine of up to $5,000 and/or 6 months in jail. In practice, the Rangers will use their discretion when writing tickets. If you are using all good faith efforts to keep your food safe from bears and other critters, you won’t be subject to a huge fine – you likely won’t even receive a ticket. They are focused on education first, enforcement only when necessary.
  • “Why is this necessary?” -The last couple of years have seen major upticks in bear/human encounters. While only about 1% of these encounters have happened in the Sawbill Area, other parts of the Wilderness have been having serious struggles with habituated bears. Bear sows teach their cubs how to swipe blue barrels off of portages and campsites, leading to generations of bears which are becoming more and more entitled to peoples’ food. It has become harder and harder to ward them off, which will ultimately lead to aggressive bears and bears that must be killed. It’s true that a fed bear is a dead bear around here.
  • “What are the approved certified bear resistant containers?” -The Forest Service is using the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee certified products list, link to the PDF found here. In short, the most commonly used containers in the BWCA are the Bear Vaults and Ursacks. Sawbill rents both of these items! Importantly, blue barrels are NOT on the list and need to be hung.
  • “How do I hang my food?” -The Forest Service has provided a handy PDF with diagrams for some suggested and approved hanging methods, here. We have a demonstrated two tree pulley method set up in front of the Sawbill store and are happy to go over it with anyone who asks. We also rent the rope and pulley system for only $1/day, and sell the same set up in our store.
  • “But those bear resistant containers are so small? How do I fit all my food in there??” -If you can, unpackaging your food and fitting it into the Ursack or BearVault is a great way to go. If you simply have too much food and don’t want to pack 6 vaults, we suggest bringing a portage pack for food AND one BearVault or Ursack. You will hang your portage pack with the pulley system, but pull out the food for that day and keep it in the bear resistant container. That way, you can hang your pack in a relatively inconvenient spot, if need be, and you won’t be needing to haul it up and down 15 times a day. The food you need for that day can live on the ground in its bear resistant container. If you keep a clean camp, you shouldn’t have any problems.

Ultimately, these requirements are in the best interest of the bears and other critters. Human visitors to the Wilderness carry the responsibility to leave this place as wild as we found it. Wilderness camping has never been about convenience or human preferences. We are so encouraged by the lack of bear encounters in our corner of the Wilderness – your efforts and diligence to keep the bears safe does not go unnoticed or unappreciated!

If, like me, you are a source document kind of person, here is the order from the USFS:

As always, if you have any questions at all about this, please feel free to give us a call or shoot us an email and we’ll do our best to give you the most accurate and up to date information!