Forest Service toughens rules on food storage in Boundary Waters to keep it away from bears

Bears at Fall Lake
Gary Fiedler saw this black bear family on three separate occasions eating blueberries in Quetico Provincial Park. This photo was take on day 123 of his seven-month Boundary Waters trip.
Courtesy of Gary L. Fiedler

The U.S. Forest Service is toughening rules on storing food in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to try to prevent black bears from seeing campers as a food source.

Forest officials have long recommended that campers hang their food and other scented items high off the ground and away from trees, or store it in bear-safe containers.

And on several occasions in past years, the Forest Service has imposed temporary orders covering limited sections of the BWCA where there have been flare-ups of bear-human encounters.

But now officials are requiring visitors to properly store their food across the entire wilderness area, or risk being cited and fined.

“The main thing we’re trying to accomplish with this food storage order is protecting bears and not habituating them to humans,” explained Cathy Quinn, acting wilderness program manager for the Superior National Forest.

“We’re trying to prevent bear-human interactions. That’s the very foundation of what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to be preventative with this instead of reactionary.”

The order went into effect last month and continues until April 19, 2026.

Food, garbage and other scented items (such as toothpaste and soap), must be suspended at least 12 feet above the ground and 6 feet away from the trunks of trees, or stored in an Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee certified bear-resistant canister.

Quinn said encounters between bears and humans have increased in the Boundary Waters over the past three years.

Last year, Quinn said, rangers discovered a cache a bear had made near a campsite it frequented, where it stored food and other equipment it pilfered from multiple groups of campers.

“It’s pretty clever behavior,” Quinn said.

Bears have also stolen food packs on portage trails, while groups are moving gear between lakes, Quinn said. That’s why the Forest Service has included language in the order requiring campers to not leave food unattended.

“We understand that the vast majority of most portages don’t fit that scenario. And we’re not going to be citing people for leaving their food unattended on a portage,” Quinn said. “We just built that into the order so that we had a tool in case we needed it.”

The rule change has generated a lot of buzz on social media from dedicated Boundary Waters paddlers.

The Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness called the rule “draconian,” because the penalty for failing to comply can include up to six months in jail and a $5,000 fine.

Gear bags in the BWCA
Gear packed in a bear-resistant barrel and portage pack in the Boundary Waters.
Cody Nelson | MPR News 2016

Friends’ spokesperson Pete Marshall said in a statement that the group has 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.”

“Having this impractical order, that carries the very real threat of jail time or hefty fines, is a major setback,” said Marshall.

Forest Service officials say the focus during the first year of the order will be on education, and that except for gross or repeated violations, they only intend to issue warnings.

Quinn said non-compliance could result in a $50 fine.

“I think that we can simmer down the drama on the jail and $5,000 fine talk,” Quinn said. I don’t think that should be the focus of what we’re trying to get across. We’re really just trying to protect bears, and get people a good experience in the wilderness without impacting wildlife.”

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