COLUMN: Food-storage rules tightened for broader area

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Most hunters do their best to follow the increasingly complex rules associated with hunting. But I値l bet that most hunters who camp out, either in a tent or RV, will unknowingly violate the law this fall.

Those violations will involve compliance with the proper storage of human food and wildlife attractants in bear country.

Originally this rule only involved the storage of human food that backpackers had when camping in grizzly bear habitat. It now includes the storage of not just human food, but a wide variety of wildlife attractants such as pet food, game fish, game animals, tooth paste, soft drinks and personal hygiene products. It also includes empty beverage cans and packages. Of special interest to hunters is that deer and elk carcasses must also be properly stored.

The traditional hunting camp, with a deer or two hanging from the limbs of a nearby tree or from a pole tied between two trees, will be a thing of the past. From what I can gather, the original food storage rules have been expanded from just grizzly bear country to now include all black bear habitat. This means all of Montana that is forested and many parts of Eastern Montana are covered by the food storage rules.

Essentially, all food or wildlife attractants, including toothpaste, must be stored in an enclosed hard-sided vehicle, or in a certified bear-proof container or suspended 10 feet off the ground and 4 feet from any tree or supporting structure. When the food storage rules were first developed, suspending a backpacker痴 5- to 10- pound food bag 10 feet off the ground was reasonable. But how do you suspend a 200-pound deer carcass or 125-pound elk quarter 10 feet off the ground and 4 feet from any tree or supporting structure?

The storage rules now require that no carcass may be kept within 100 yards of any camping or sleeping area or National Forest trail, even if properly stored. If within 100 yards to one-half mile of a sleeping or camping area, carcasses may be kept if property stored. Carcasses may be left on the ground if over a half-mile from a sleeping area and 200 yards from a Forest Service trail.

The Forest Service is quick to point out that with a system of ropes and pulleys, deer and elk carcasses can be properly hung. I think that may work well for outfitter camps where the professional outfitter sets up a permanent base camp for several weeks. But for the weekend hunter, I値l bet that 98 percent of hunters will not have the proper equipment, physical ability or know-how to legally store a deer or elk carcass near their camp.

If we estimate a deer carcass is 6 feet long and the deer must be 10 feet off the ground and a minimum of 4 feet below the rope or pole suspending the carcass, then adding in 2 to 4 feet of rope sag due to the weight of the animal, the horizontal supporting rope must be at least 25 feet off the ground! How many hunter camps have someone who can safely climb 25 feet up a tree?

Last fall a friend and his elk hunting crew were camped on the Beaverhead-Deer Lodge National Forest. They have been camping there for 20 years. They shot an elk and hung it in a tree, just like they have for the last 20 years, without any bear problems. But last year they were cited for improper storage of an animal carcass.

When my friend wrote to the Forest Service and Fish, Wildlife and Parks and asked about bear-hunter camp conflicts, neither agency could cite any bear-hunter camp problems in that area. They did cite a bear incident, unrelated to hunting, in another state. Sure, bear-hunter camp conflicts can and will occur, but only very rarely.

In Montana, where the legal harvest of black bears is several hundred per year and a couple of dozen grizzlies are killed each year, an occasional bear-hunter camp problem is probably within acceptable hunting, camping and bear management standards. The current game carcass storage rules tend to encourage violations and discourage public use of public land.

So before you head out this fall to set up your hunting camp, you should check with the Forest Service and FWP to review the food storage and game storage rules for your hunting area.

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