Ursack Update

April 06, 2008

Ursack has reluctantly, but resolutely, filed suit against the Sierra Interagency Black Bear Group (SIBBG) asking the court to reverse what we believe is SIBBG’s arbitrary and capricious decision to withdraw approval of the Ursack S29 Hybrid. We are joined in this suit by some representative backpackers including: a former Tuolomne Meadows ranger, a college chemistry professor, and the holder of the record for the fastest self-contained female solo of the John Muir Trail. There is no way to predict, at this point, when or how the case will be resolved, but it is at least possible that Ursacks will once again be allowed in the restricted areas of the Sierra this summer.

The lawsuit does not seek money. Instead, it asks that Ursack be evaluated objectively, and that backpackers’ needs be factored into any decision that prohibits the use of Ursack or any other product. SIBBG’s decision to ban Ursack was based on the allegation of 6 failures. There is no such thing as a bear proof container—all canisters have failed at one time or another. SIBBG refuses to produce evidence of these alleged Ursack failures, but we know from SIBBG’s written description that in two cases bears got no food, and in two cases the problem was user error—the Ursacks were not torn and could be effectively used again today. Because we don’t have the evidence, we don’t know what happened in the other two incidents.

There is an analogy is to auto crash testing. The National Highway Safety Traffic Administration (NHSTA), a federal agency, tests cars for rollover resistance. It does so because nearly 10,000 people are killed each year as a result of rollovers. The test they devised was based on input from a variety of scientific sources, and the results of that test are a rating system from one to five stars for each vehicle. There is no requirement that manufacturers meet a certain standard. Rather, the government relies on consumers to protect their own interests once the rollover information is provided.

By contrast, SIBBG is a federal advisory group that tests containers for bear resistance. It does so in order to minimize bear-human conflict. The test they devised is largely subjective. In recent memory, no Sierra camper has been killed by a black bear. By far the biggest reason bears get human food is not failed canisters, it is campers’ inability to store all their food in a single canister. But SIBBG does not test canisters for practicality, it tests them for impregnability. This is a little like a stage coach company in the old West touting the strength of its safe while ignoring the fact the that the safe can’t hold all the gold.

There is not enough space here to detail all of the arbitrary and capricious decisions SIBBG has made over the years with regard to Ursack. We hope to resolve this quickly and amicably so that backpackers can use the equipment they want, while giving adequate protection to bears.