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June 10, 1999
No camping on part of Elwha River Trail due to hungry bears


A 6.8-mile stretch of the Elwha River Trail in Olympic National Park has been closed to camping because hungry black bears apparently just emerged from hibernation and have been stealing hikers' food.

Bears damaged hikers' equipment and got into their food in three incidents over Memorial Day Weekend. In one instance, a bear climbed out on a limb and broke a branch from which hikers had hung their food. In other cases, bears approached within 4 feet of an occupied tent and ripped open an empty backpack that had been left on the ground.

You still may hike the Elwha Trail, but that portion between Lillian River and Elkhorn campsite is closed to overnight use. The same stretch was closed at least twice last summer and fall after bears took food from campers and hikers. Biologists believe a poor berry crop in the mountains last year caused the bears to seek out alternative food sources.

This time, biologists believe the heavy snowpack has resulted in not only a longer hibernation, but is also keeping bears out of high country meadows and down in the valley.

"We have indications from a study . . . that most of the bears follow the snow line," Patti Happe, park biologist, said yesterday. "Right now, the snow line is really low. I was just in the Elwha Valley last week and there's a heck of a lot of bears using that part of the valley."

Elkhorn camp is equipped with "bear wires," from which hikers must hang their food. It is staffed by a park ranger and remains open to camping. Other camp spots in the valley also have been equipped with wires and park crews are installing still more.

The park is requiring campers to hang all food and any food-scented items from bear wires provided at Humes Ranch, Lillian River and Elkhorn. In all other locations of the valley, campers must carry 100 feet of cord and hang their food 12 feet off the ground and at least 10 feet from the nearest tree trunk -- easier said than done if you've ever tried it.

Another option is bear-resistant food canisters. They are available at many backpacking supply stores, and you can rent them at Brown's Outdoor Store and Olympic Mountaineering in Port Angeles.

Happe said it appears the Elwha Valley is a key spring foraging area for bears. And unfortunately, they seem to have learned to associate people with food.

"Some of the bears have actually learned -- they've figured out what that rope means," she said. "They're going after anything scented."

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