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Could a bear break into that cooler? Watch these grizzlies try.

The bears at Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center just outside Yellowstone National Park have an important job. (Video: Whitney Shefte, Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)
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WEST YELLOWSTONE, Mont. — Coram the grizzly bear developed a bad habit as a youngster of raiding trash cans, ripping into dog food bags and stealing bread from pickup trucks. Now he’s a 600-pound adult who puts these refined scavenging skills to use as a professional product tester.

Along with five other grizzlies that live at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center just outside Yellowstone National Park, Coram spends his summer months beating and biting coolers, food canisters and garbage cans. Only products that withstand 60 full minutes of bear mauling receive a valuable stamp of approval — a seal from the federal Interagency Bear Committee certifying them as “bear-resistant” and recommended for use in bear country. Those that the grizzlies puncture or bust open must go back to their manufacturers’ drawing boards.

Coram “is a master at the container,” according to the center’s chief operating officer, Kevin Murphy. But all the bears at this site, the only one in the nation approved by the committee for these “live bear tests,” have proved their fitness for the job. Spirit, an 11-year-old female, persistently sought trash and food in residential areas of Whitefish, Mont., even after officials shot her with rubber bullets and menaced her with firecrackers. Sow 101 was moved 150 miles to the Wyoming wilderness after stealing doughnuts and other human foods in West Yellowstone; she walked all the way back and reoffended.

“Roosevelt is usually pretty aggressive,” said Bill McGlynn, a center employee who one morning was manning the video camera recording the test of a white, Valley brand cooler that held a fish head, an elk bone and peanut butter — items whose reek grizzlies cannot resist. At the moment, Roosevelt, one of a pair of brothers that arrived at the center as orphaned cubs in 2011, was chewing on the container’s wheels. He gave up after a few more minutes of rolling it around and unsuccessfully attempting to lift its double-padlocked lid.

“Of course,” McGlynn added, “we always root for the bears.”

The bears do fairly well, breaching upwards of 30 percent of the products; their cooler-busting record is seven minutes. The grizzlies test as many as 90 products between April and October each year, batting the items about their grassy two-acre habitat while providing visitors with a vivid demonstration of the importance of securing food when bears might be nearby. Pass or fail, manufacturers pay  $450 to $750 for these maulings, which, the committee’s 19-page “product testing protocol” explains, are carried out by “bears of various sizes and with varying levels of experience with containers.”

The program is an outgrowth of a revolution in bear management that began in the late 1960s. Before that time, there was little concern inside or outside national parks about black or grizzly bears obtaining garbage or human foods; for many years, in fact, Yellowstone’s garbage dumps were top grizzly viewing spots. Two fatal attacks on campers in Glacier National Park in 1967, both carried out by trash-conditioned grizzlies, led to the wider use of bear-resistant containers on public lands, many of which now require visitors to keep food and other attractants inaccessible to bears.

That created a market for products, and by the 1990s, federal agencies realized they needed a systematic way of judging them. For a while, tests also included mechanical elements, said Scott Jackson, the national carnivore program leader for the U.S. Forest Service, which administers the program. A 100-pound weight dropped on containers simulated the full-body slams favored by grizzlies, while a “penetrometer” — a thrusting, conical piece of metal — mimicked a bear tooth.

Eventually, Jackson said, the program became so popular that it needed to be streamlined, so managers decided to focus on its most essential component: living, breathing grizzly bears.

“The gold standard was always the live bear test,” Jackson said, adding that products that pass perform well in the real world. “Bears, with their teeth and claws, they can manipulate all sorts of latches in ways we find really amazing. And I think that would be really difficult to mimic in some sort of robotic way.”

A small number of products undergo only visual tests by humans. Among them are large steel dumpsters, which tend to bore bears, that “know they can’t really get into them,” Jackson said. The committee’s protocol refers to this as “testing fatigue.”

Plastic trash cans on wheels, on the other hand, must be chained to a tree during tests, because otherwise the grizzlies drag them into the pond in the middle of their habitat. Sometimes a bear will do that with a cooler, too, and “pop up on it and float around just like a kid would do,” McGlynn said. Such water antics aren’t counted toward the required 60 minutes of bear contact time, because at that point, McGlynn said, “it’s a toy.”

Just one of the center’s seven grizzlies, an Alaskan brown bear named Sam, does not participate in product testing. That’s because at more than 1,000 pounds, his brute force is unrepresentative of grizzlies in the Lower 48, which are smaller, said John Heine, the discovery center’s director. (Sam has been known to uproot trees in the bear habitat.)

The Valley cooler on trial this fall morning was faring pretty well. It had already been out for a session the day before, and now McGlynn, who was filming from an elevated deck in the public viewing area, only needed another 20 minutes or so of bear contact to complete the test.

Spirit managed to explore it for only a few seconds before Coram chased her off — teamwork, Heine noted, is not among grizzlies’ strengths. Having taken over, Coram squished his nose against the cooler’s drain hole, right where McGlynn had stuffed the fish head.

“I see he’s salivating like crazy,” said Heine, who was standing near McGlynn. “He may be getting a little drip there.”

Over the next 45 minutes or so, the grizzlies devoted bursts of attention to whacking, jumping on and flipping over the cooler. At one point, Spirit lay on her side licking the drain hole, her back legs spread eagle. Later, she sat cradling the cooler and rocking it back and forth with her front paws. Two rapt children, both wearing junior park ranger costumes, watched from the sidelines with their parents.

Coram soon came back for another try. He draped his 600 pounds of fur and muscle over the box, trying what Murphy referred to as a “classic grizzly bear move — compression.” The container remained intact, and McGlynn was confident he had his 60 minutes of footage.

The official decision on whether the cooler would earn a bear-resistant seal was yet to come. But to the grizzlies’ frustration, the fish head and elk bone had remained well out of reach.

Read more: 

Grizzlies are spreading far beyond Yellowstone National Park. Can the bears and humans coexist? 

The true story of two fatal grizzly bear attacks that changed our relationship with wildlife

Bear breaks into house, plays the piano but not very well

Here’s what seeing bears at National Parks looked like 90 years ago