It was a stressful day for Mick Thompson.
Grizzly bears last Thursday were circling, climbing on and knocking over recycling bins that he and his father, Mike, of Back Alley Metals in Red Lodge, had fabricated. Despite the anxiety, Thompson said the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone, where the containers were being tested for their bear-proof capability, is a “really cool place.”
“They have some really neat bears there,” he said. “They have one that can open paddle latches, which bears aren’t supposed to be able to open.”
For about an hour, the Thompsons watched as several of the bears were let loose one at a time to try to open the containers. The bins were smeared with grape jelly and stuffed with smelly fish to encourage the bears to do their best. The bins stood up to the test, which was designed by the center along with the Forest Service, Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Living with Wildlife Foundation to guarantee manufactured items are bear-resistant.
The recycling unit that the Thompsons were testing is large. Five 33-gallon bins — one each for glass, aluminum, paper, plastic and trash — are welded together to create a 10-foot-long unit weighing about 700 pounds. It is constructed of 12- and 14-gauge steel and has a half-inch-thick steel latching system.
“We had to make it pretty beefy for the bears because one is about 1,000 pounds,” Thompson said.
Three of the units have already been installed around Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park, and Back Alley Metals has an order for three more to be placed at Canyon and Tower. Each unit is decorated with a different image — geysers, buffalo and maybe a stagecoach scene for the Tower unit.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m more of a computer programmer than a metal fabricator,” Thompson said. “I spend a lot of time working in CAD (Computer Assisted Design).”
Thompson said it takes a couple of weeks to build each unit.
The recycling units are one of the newer additions to Back Alley Metals’ product line. They also build bear-proof trash cans as well as anything else steel, including signs, stairs and range hoods. The business is two years old.
“We’re staying busy,” Thompson said. “These bear cans definitely help.”
He said the containers account for about 25 percent of the company’s fabrication business. A visitor to Red Lodge from Wisconsin ordered some of the trash cans after seeing them around town.