Attention backpackers: Beginning today – July 18, 2022 – overnight visitors to the Desolation Wilderness are required to store their food and trash in a canister designed to prevent access by bears.
Those orders were signed recently by USDA forest supervisors at the Eldorado National Forest and Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, the agencies tasked with management of Desolation Wilderness. The purpose is to protect both bears and visitors to Desolation Wilderness, a popular, 63,960-acre wilderness area located southwest of Lake Tahoe and north of Highway 50 in El Dorado County.
“In recent years, bears have become more aggressive in their search for food, relying on human sources rather than natural sources. This causes increased interactions between humans and bears and the possibility of bears becoming habituated to the presence of humans. A person who fights back or gets between the bear and food is risking bodily injury or death. In cases where a bear is known to threaten or intimidate visitors repeatedly, or cause injury, the bear may be euthanized,” stated the USDA Forest Service news release announcing the new requirement.
The Forest Service says backpackers at Lake Aloha, Gilmore Lake and other popular camping areas in Desolation Wilderness have lost as many as 10 “bear hangs” a night to bears in recent years. Visitors are left with no food. To continue their backpacking trips, many of these groups must hike out of the wilderness to get more food. A “bear hang” is typically a makeshift system of rope, cord, sacks or bags – sometimes including pulleys and carabiners – used to hang or suspend food in a tree to protect it from black bears as well as from rodents in the backcountry.
“Typical methods of food and trash storage are no longer effective as wildlife has grown accustomed to humans,” stated the news release. “Whistles, banging pots and pans, yelling, nothing is working. Bears have adapted to even the most experienced campers’ food hangs and brought them down.
“One of the principles of Leave No Trace is to respect wildlife. Considerate campers observe wildlife from a distance, store food securely and keep garbage and food scraps away from animals. A camper would be wise to check his or her tent for food in pockets, candy wrappers and the like.”
The USDA Forest Service notes that backpackers can both purchase or rent a bear canister at the Placerville Ranger Station in Camino when they get their permit. For more information on rentals, call (530) 647-5415. Backpackers can also purchase a canister at a recreational outlet. Most bear canisters sold at retail recreational stores are highly bear-resistant.
Backpackers who are not in compliance with the forest order are subject to citations and fines.
Frequently Asked Questions from the USDA Forest Service
What is a “canister designed to prevent access by bears"?
Hard-sided canisters are commercially produced and designed to prevent access by bears. Bear-resistant canisters and panniers are the most effective method of food storage for wilderness travelers. Throughout the region, use of bear-resistant canisters is strongly recommended. In Desolation Wilderness it is mandatory to store food and refuse in a canister designed to prevent access by bear as of July 18, 2022.
Other food storage options like “odor proof” bags, or chew resistant bags, while great in many places, are not effective in Desolation Wilderness.
Do day users need to carry a canister?
Typically, people not spending the night will not need to carry a canister. Think about whether you will be able to always stay within arms-reach of your food. If you plan to swim, or leave your pack behind while skiing or climbing, or some other situation, you must store your food in a canister.
Do I need a canister during the winter?
Yes, canisters are required year-round.
Can I hike with overnight equipment across Desolation Wilderness in a day and not carry a canister?
Please carry a bear canister. It is the right thing to do, especially around Lake Tahoe and in the Sierra Nevada. Your responsibility to protect bears does not end at the Desolation Wilderness boundary, nor do the problems associated with human-food habituated bears. Lake Tahoe is struggling with people poorly protecting their food from bears. Help be a part of the solution.
In some places, if you have overnight equipment such as a tent or sleeping bag, you must comply with overnight and bear canister regulations even if you hope not to sleep in the area. For now, this is not the case in Desolation Wilderness. We will caution you that the 26 miles of Pacific Crest Trail between Echo Lake and Richardson Lake are hard to do in a day and bears continue to seek out and are actively obtaining food from hikers north of the Desolation Wilderness boundary.
What needs to be stored in a canister?
Items that must be secured include food sealed in jars, cans or foil packs. Non-food items such as plastic bottles, water bottles, coffee mugs, pet food, empty cans, trash, wrappers, cosmetics, grocery bags, boxes and ice chests must also be secured. Do not leave these items in your car or tent. Bears will break in to obtain them.
How can I report a bear-related incident in Desolation Wilderness?
Visitors can report an incident by calling the Placerville Ranger Station at (530) 647-5415 or the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit at (530) 543-2600.