Yellow not mellow in bear country

In outdoorsman Larry Woodall's experience, yellow makes bears see red.

When you’re out and about shopping for your favourite outdoor enthusiast this month, quality, technical design, breathability, and colour are all important factors. Colours are an especially important consideration — bright colours are easier to locate in emergency scenarios, but yellow is one bright colour I’d personally avoid. Or, more specifically, yummy yellow.

Bears have colour vision and studies have found that they seem particularly sensitive to blue and green wavelengths. There is also a good possibility they can see red, which many mammals are unable to see. If bears are in fact able to distinguish red, it would mean they are close to same colour vision as humans.

Bears have binocular vision and are near-sighted. They have difficulty seeing things at a distance but, due to their colour vision, they can see movement far away. This is why many a hikers or hunter wearing bright colours has spooked bears from more than 500 meters away, even though they are downwind. Its the movement that alerts the bruin.

What’s interesting is the colour yellow. Porcupines love chewing up yellow canoes, and a number of yellow canoes have been destroyed by bears. Further, through my personal experience, I’ve dealt with two tents that were destroyed by bears, both of which were bright yellow.

Now, it could possibly be a coincidence that both canoes and tents were yellow, but when I was working with the Ministry of Natural Resources we had more than 40 portages in our park zone — all with yellow markers/signage — that were constantly destroyed by bears. We ended up changing them to orange markers and our problem ended.

We also had one trail that was indicated by yellow markers that were also continuously destroyed by bears. After the success of changing the colour of the portage markers, we employed the same colour for the trail in question, and, voila! Another success. We were no longer constantly replacing markers or dealing with lost hikers due to missing markers.

This issue came to the forefront once again this summer, while hiking in the Turner Lake Canoe Circuit on one of the old trails marked with yellow tree markers. Every single marker for five kilometres was destroyed, with the telltale signs of engraved grizzly claws where the markers had been.

When you consider the canoes, tents, portage and trail markers, all yellow and all being destroyed by bears, this is no longer coincidence — it’s the yummy yellow syndrome. When you consider that citrus-scented insect repellant sexually stimulates and excites bears to be aggressive, maybe, just maybe, bears relate yellow to citrus. Then again, it may be just a personal choice that the bears don’t appreciate yellow in their homes. Or a simple case of yummy yellow forest rage.

So this Christmas, for those backcountry travellers you’re fond of, avoid yummy yellow, for those you’re not so fond of you could experiment by purchasing all bright yellow gear and have your camera ready when hiking to document how sensitive bears truly are to yummy yellow.

Lawrence Woodall is a longtime naturalist who has spent much of his life in the outdoors.

 

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