Chances are, there’s a bear lurking somewhere in every elk hunter’s mind. From California to Pennsylvania, anybody who hunts elk is likely in bear country. Whether pitching a tent at the beginning of the hunt, or harvesting an animal toward the end, bears have the potential to ruin your trip. Black bears should never be taken for granted, and those who hunt among grizzlies or brown bears always need to bring their A game. On top of the safety risk, bears can wreak havoc by destroying equipment, pillaging food and claiming game for themselves. Despite the array of coolers, storage containers and hanging mechanisms intended to discourage bears, nothing is sure re in every situation.
But now there’s another arrow in the quiver: electric fencing, an effective deterrent that is becoming a cheaper and more portable option for backcountry visitors. First patented in 1886, electric fences have been widely used by ranchers and farmers since the 1930s. What started as a way to keep pack stock and livestock in has evolved into a way to keep wildlife out.
The system itself is fairly simple. An energizer, usually powered by a battery, sends voltage through wires or mesh strung between poles or trees to create an enclosure. Tests with bears tend to yield the same results. They cautiously approach, able to hear the voltage, creep toward their prize and, zap. Even one gentle touch of the nose causes a jolt that will send them sprawling backward, putting serious distance between themselves and the fence.
Such fences have long been used to keep bears from raiding livestock pens, chicken coops, orchards and carcass disposal sites. State wildlife agencies even help install them. In high-density bear areas like the greater Yellowstone and Alaska, scientists conducting eld research often employ them to protect their camps during the work day.
Using electric fences in the backcountry, however, has not been practical for the average hunter or camper. Batteries and fencing materials were heavy, complicated to set up and more expensive than bear-proof containers. Today, though, bear fences come in snugly packaged kits that can weigh less than 10 pounds and sell for similar prices as large bear-proof containers.
Mike Madel, a longtime bear specialist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks based in the heart of grizzly country on the Rocky Mountain Front, says that electric fencing is the best way to protect bear attractants in agricultural settings. Madel says fences are growing increasingly effective and common among hunters and even in large backpacking groups.
“When we go check hunters in the backcountry, it’s amazing how many camps are set up with electric fences,” he says. And unlike hung food or a sealed cooler, that zap gives bears a non-lethal warning to stay away from humans, reducing the chance of future conficts.
Generally a fence must transmit at least 5,000 volts. The height of the top and bottom wires, and the spacing between wires, are crucial. Bears are great diggers and climbers. Like anything else, fences need to be periodically tested
and maintained. Waning batteries dip voltage to levels that aren’t effective, while branches or tall grass can short the current. A good grounding is also vital. Madel says the best practice is to bring extra batteries and wires just in case.
Chuck Bartlebaugh of Be Bear Aware, a nonprofit bear education and safety group, researches, tests and promotes bear prevention products. He stresses the importance of doing careful homework before buying deterrent fences, and urges people to choose products officially approved by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC). He cautions that in the quest to shave weight, some products have also pared away reliability or simply don’t deliver adequate voltage to persuade a motivated bear to keep out. He also warns against trying to cut costs with homemade fences.
“If hunters think they can build their own fence cheaper, they can’t,” Bartlebaugh says.
Tom Parker of Buck Creek Guides, has guided hunters and backpackers in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness—prime grizzly habitat—since 1978.
“I see more bears on some days than many will during their lifetime, but I’ve never had an encounter end badly,” Parker says.
Come hunting season, fresh kills and especially high-protein gut piles are magnets for bears. Parker has spent a lot of long nights packing elk and deer to get the meat away from the kill site and secured in base camp as quickly as possible rather than returning the next day. But with improving portability of electric fences, he’s considering utilizing them around his game instead.
George E. Hyde, general manager at the bear defense company Counter Assault, which sells IGBC-approved electric fences, says that is exactly what hunters should use them for. “It’s not uncommon to get an animal right at last light—when you’d be packing the bear’s dinner on your back in the dark,” Hyde says. “You might be able to quarter and hang it and fence that, or you could just put a fence around the animal.”
Cooking and food tents, distanced from your sleeping area, are the first thing to protect with fences, Hyde says, but if you have the extra wire, putting them around sleeping areas adds another line of defense. Parker stresses that paying mind to bears in every facet of hunting and camping will always reduce confllicts.
“You can employ all sorts of things, but you have to keep a clean camp and be fastidious with odors,” he says.
Once a bear becomes habituated to human sources of food, it can become progressively less cautious and more belligerent. Those “problem bears” often get killed as a result. Fences are never excuses to bring food in a sleeping tent or to drop your guard about keeping all bear attractants a safe distance from sleeping sites. Fences or no, Parker carries two cans of bear spray and knows how to use them—a move that Mike Madel of Montana FWP wholeheartedly endorses.
With bear encounters on the increase, Madel and fellow wildlife managers feel pressed more than ever to educate hunters and hikers about bear safety. Madel says the biggest battle remains convincing people of the effectiveness of bear spray over rearms. Case after case shows pepper spray to be a far safer and more reliable way to deter a charging bear, resulting in fewer injuries and deaths to both people and bears. Bear spray is a must during every activity in bear country. But when combined with bear spray, good sense and good backcountry practices, portable electric fences can be a highly effective method to avoid conflicts and bring greater peace of mind.