April 2, 2009
Bears Assist in Researching Alternative Fuelsby Jim Evanoff, Environmental Protection Specialist, Yellowstone National Park
As the world’s first national park, Yellowstone prides itself on being first to introduce innovative approaches to sound environmental stewardship. We’ve been a leader among national parks in the areas of solar energy, recycling, and alternative fuels. But sometimes we need a little help to test the viability of new approaches. In one such case, the experts called upon were grizzly bears.
In 1995, Yellowstone became the first national park to use a renewable alternative fuel. Through a partnership with the three surrounding states, as well as the Department of Energy, the Park began to use 100% canola oil as fuel in a staff-driven vehicle. A new pick-up truck, donated by Dodge Truck, Inc. was fueled with the biofuel that was produced at the University of Idaho.
Yellowstone is no stranger to unique operational challenges, primarily due to its high elevation, severe climatic conditions, and the high degree of natural resource protection required. These challenges tested the viability of the “Truck in the Park” project, as it was officially titled.
Special measures had to be taken to ensure the fuel would not “gel” when temperatures plummeted below freezing during winter months.
Fuel storage was also an issue, as the Park’s headquarters in Mammoth Hot Springs was the only location in the northwestern U.S. that had the oil available as a fuel. As a result, a three hundred gallon tank was installed in the bed of the truck which enabled operators to drive up to 6,000 miles before refueling.
But Will the Truck be Irresistible to Bears?
The most unique challenge of the Truck in the Park project, however, was to address the genuine concern from Park staff that burning a food-based oil would attract bears. Since the truck carries 300 gallons of canola oil, and creates exhaust that smells a bit like a fast-food joint, this was a potential stumbling block.
As a result of this concern, the truck was driven to Washington State University, where captive grizzly bears are housed for conservation-based research. For a full week, biologists piped exhaust from the biodiesel truck within sniffing range of the captive bears to observe if the bears were attracted to the sweet aroma. At the end of the testing, it was concluded that the bears showed no substantive attraction to the exhaust odor. Thus, the “Truck in the Park” passed its final viability test.
Today, that same Dodge truck is still performing well in Yellowstone. It has been driven more than 200,000 miles by Park rangers and, for the most part, still uses only canola oil as its primary fuel. Due to the success of the “Truck in the Park” project, Yellowstone switched its entire fleet of diesel-burning vehicles to a biodiesel fuel blend in 2002. Since then, dozens of other national parks have followed Yellowstone’s lead and converted to this renewable fuel.
Learn more about Yellowstone’s efforts to reduce fossil fuel consumption and emissions>>