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Visitors to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness are encountering new, stricter requirements about how they store their food to avoid encounters with bears.

Just like fire bans, on-and-off food storage orders to prevent black bear activity happen over time. What's different now is the order isn't site-specific where there is known bear activity. The new rule covers the entire wilderness and also is in effect for two years.

The managers of the BWCAW say there are more reports of cubs and mothers, out of hibernation early, in search of food in dry, challenging conditions. The Forest Service's new order requires all food stores, cooking equipment and "smellables" such as garbage to get hung from a tree — already a recommended method — and to exact specifications. Also new is a list of certified grizzly-proof containers that consumers must use if food is stored on the ground.

"This is a high notice. There has just been an increase in bear-to-human conflict," said Forest Service spokesperson Joy VanDrie.

The order took effect April 19 and runs through Nov. 30. Individual violators face fines of up to $5,000 and jail time up to six months, although the Forest Service said in a news release that only warnings will get issued the first year "except for gross violations or repeated violations."

The news, which came just before the start of the quota season May 1, has elicited some questions and disagreement but also support.

Here is what to know:

What's new for BWCAW visitors?

Already the recommended method for campers is to get food stores off the ground and out of reach of wildlife. Many campers use ropes to suspend, say, a food pack from a tree branch. The new order says food stores must be at least 12 feet above the ground and 6 feet horizontally from the trunk of a tree. Otherwise, food must be stored in a container certified by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC). Many of the commonly used polyethylene blue barrels thought to be bear-resistant have spotty records in the wild, and they aren't on the IGBC list. (Find it at

What about the timing of the new rule?

VanDrie said the agency had hoped to have the order in place sooner. It notified stakeholders, like wilderness outfitters, before the public.

What are some reactions?

Commenters in some BWCAW forums had mixed reactions. Some were understanding but thought the penalties were severe in the context of a camping trip. One paddler wondered what to do with food if a pack is left alone for a time at a portage. (The Forest Service says to avoid leaving food unattended for any time on a portage.) A few site users on a forum were glad they already used Ursack lightweight bags, which qualify as grizzly-proof containers.

Ginny Nelson, who operates Spirit of the Wilderness Outfitters in Ely, was understanding when word came from the agency.

"It is a wilderness area. The animals … this is their home," she told the Star Tribune. "There are certain things we have to do to make sure the interaction is positive. 'Don't feed the bears' is not a new concept."

Clare Shirley,who with her husband, Dan, runs Sawbill Outfitters near Tofte, always has offered rope-and-pulley systems for campers and encouraged Leave No Trace principles.

"We're not caught flatfooted [by the order]," Shirley said.

Friends of the Boundary Waters supports the ethical practice of storing food well, too, but a spokesperson said the penalty for not doing so precisely is overly severe.

"Our group, and many other groups, have worked hard to make the wilderness more inviting to diverse groups of people, to open it to people who never went to the Boundary Waters," said communications director Pete Marshall. "Having this impractical order, that carries the very real threat of jail time or hefty fines, is a major setback."

VanDrie said the possible penalties align with other wilderness regulations. Fireworks, glass or cans, and cutting live trees, for example, are illegal and subject to the same penalties.

"The forest order is in place as a deterrent and an education piece," she said. "We don't expect a lot of tickets issued, if any, in the first year or at all. We would hope that people are ethical enough on their own side to try to be as safe as they can with their food while they are in the Boundary Waters."