Building a bear pole in the Gravelly Range By Tom Mallon
The sun hadn’t yet crested the horizon as I snaked through canyons along the Madison River in the stillness of the early morning. Aside from the occasional family of deer off to the side of the road, it felt as if I was the only one in the canyon this morning.
I came to the top of a hill and saw the Madison Valley for the first time; a sweeping landscape of golden valley flanked on two sides by towering mountains. To the west, the Tobacco Root and Gravelly ranges, and to the East, the majestic Madison Range.
I had been working at People and Carnivores for about 2 weeks and was still relatively new to the world of grizzly bears, but I had heard many stories about the work that was being done across the Madison Valley to prepare for the expansion of grizzlies out of Yellowstone. In order to make it back to their former homelands of central Idaho, they would have to cross this expansive valley, a journey that would inevitably expose them to potential conflicts with people.
I was heading south, past Ennis and almost to West Yellowstone, to meet with our Conservation Director Steve Primm. Steve would be taking me up into the Gravelly Range to observe the construction of a bear pole, a 19-foot high horizontal crossbar hanging between two trees, designed to keep food and other attractants off the ground and away from bears. Steve told me that he had built more than 250 poles around Greater Yellowstone and the High Divide, and as a result, he was helping keep backcountry users and bears out of conflict with one another.
Usually, building a bear pole is a two-person job, but not today. Steve has so much experience building them that he is able to do it himself, though he says it takes about 3 times longer than when working with an experienced partner. Nonetheless, it was a daunting thought to think of Steve hoisting a tree by himself, 14 feet into the air, and then securing it so that it would be usable for almost 20 years. I knew it would be a fascinating experience and I was excited to be spending the day with him.
It wasn’t long after we hopped in Steve’s dusty pickup truck that the pavement ended. We turned off the main highway and climbed up a forest service road that wound through dense coniferous forest and up into the mountains. Along the way, Steve pointed out different species of trees—lodgepole pine, Douglas fir, and the occasional whitebark pine. He explained to me the importance of whitebark pine to grizzly bears’ diets and how beetle infestations had nearly decimated the species’ population in the United States. As a result, grizzlies were ranging father to find alternate food sources, putting them at a greater risk of conflicts with humans.
We pulled in to Wolverine Basin, a rolling landscape of meadow intermeshed with conifer forest, surrounded by craggy, rugged peaks. We set up shop for the day and unloaded Steve’s equipment. Steve told me that he had been to the same spot the previous week to scope out the area and there were 10 inches of snow on the ground. Today, only patches remained, which boded well for us since we would be trudging through the woods.
We began by surveying the area for a tree that was the perfect diameter for the horizontal crossbar. A tree too big would be difficult to hoist, but it had to be strong enough to hold an elk carcass or a large sack of food. Steve also stressed the importance that the tree should be alive so it would be strong for years to come. We found our tree and Steve fired up his chainsaw. He carefully made the first cut and the log fell shortly after. Using tongs, he carried the downed log over to the spot he had picked out the week before, with two trees standing just the right distance from one another to hang the crossbar.
The next step was to remove all of the lower limbs and branches from the standing trees so that the crossbar had a clear path up the tree, which Steve did using a miniature electric saw and a portable ladder. To ready the crossbar for hoisting, Steve took a draw knife and worked his way around the log, stripping it of its bark—an important step as it allows the wood to breathe and therefore lengthens the structure’s lifespan.
After the crossbar was stripped, Steve fastened a cable to the length of the log using u-shaped fencing staples. This would ensure that if the log were to break at some point, it would be held together by the wire as a secondary safety measure and the fragmented log would not come crashing down. Everything was now in place to lift the tree into its resting place.
Steve again climbed his ladder to install a temporary pulley system about 20 feet up the tree. He carefully threaded ropes through the pulleys and back to the ground, hooking them to both sides of the log below. With the pulleys as his “partner,” Steve began to slowly raise each side of the log a couple feet at a time.
When the crossbar was in place, the pulleys engaged their auto locking system and Steve carried heavy chains with him up the ladder, which he wrapped around the crossbar and the upright tree multiple times, then fastened using an electric drill and multiple bolts to provide maximal security.
Finally, it was time to step back and admire Steve’s handiwork. I looked up at the structure and thought about all of the people who will pass through Wolverine Basin in years to come and stumble upon it. With any luck, it will be well used, providing a way for hunters to store their game and backcountry hikers to store their meal—keeping their attractants away from bears and helping keep them out of trouble as they move across the Gravellies toward Central Idaho. All in a day’s work at People and Carnivores!