Bears and fruit trees, part 4

Because of what I do and where I live, I am often talking with people about the human-wildlife conflict, and am continually surprised by what I hear. There are many misconceptions about our relationship with nature in general and with wildlife in particular. During these discussions, I notice there are several persistent, pervasive false beliefs about the human-bear relationship. Some of these beliefs are even enacted into public policies and laws, and contradictory policies at that. For example, there is a lot of talk in the media these days about local eating: the 100 Mile Diet, re-localization, Food Security, Food Sovereignty, and so on. There has even been some B.C. Ministry of Health interest in promoting the aforementioned with their recent ‘access to produce’ initiative. However, the Conservation Service (Ministry of Environment) seems to be at odds with this food security agenda by advising people to cut down their fruit trees whenever there is a bear-human conflict. This issue is the fuel that sparked this series of posts—when I found myself in conversation with some folks from the B.C. Food System Network who were alarmed by their Conservation Officer threatening them with fines if they did NOT cut down their fruit trees.

It’s a question of food security

While it may sound as if I would have all bears and wildlife destroyed, it is not the case. My position with respect to the human-wildlife conflict is rooted in terms of food security and community/rural survival: we cannot have food security when there are oppositional philosophies being enforced by different Ministries.

What I hope to do over the course of several posts is to examine these key themes and shed light on these common false beliefs. The other post of this series are:

1.How to make bears and fruit trees get along

2. Bears and fruit trees, part two

3. Bears and fruit trees, part three

As ever, I welcome your feedback and comments as they can add to the discussion and help me develop my position.

False belief #4: After all, you are in ‘their territory’

Some readers’ responses to one of my posts about the human-wildlife conflict provide a departure point for discussion of this false belief: “Any thoughts about the fact that you are placing tasty food morsels in the bear’s territory? Why are you keeping fruit trees in bear territory?” … “If you have animals and fruit trees then you are just asking for predators to come”… “Well, you are in their territory so you just have to accept this” (my personal favourite). The very concept of ‘territory’ is the essential problem. It is a neat fiction which presumes a boundary between the bears’ ‘territory’ and ‘ours’, and a contractual agreement as to where that boundary-line is. If so, where is it? At the edge of cities? around all rural areas? or should we all move out of the countryside and back into cities… again, where is the edge of the city? At this field, or that fence-line? As with so many issues, this debate is over boundaries, borders, and margins, and yet there is no demarcated boundary to any natural creature’s territory—only constantly changing niches or ill-defined ranges, constantly fought for with tooth and claw. The idea of identifiable borders is a human invention (viz. Hadrian’s, China’s, Berlin’s, Peach Arch Park and the 49th parallel) and we have difficulty maintaining even those (look at Gaza, or the Mexico/US border, or China and Tibet, or the Northwest Territory now Nunavut, to name a fraction of the infractions). Animals like bears do understand territory and mark theirs distinctively, but that territory is a living, changing thing, depending on each bear’s niche, condition, and the state of the food supply. That food supply is intimately linked to the general bear population; if the food supply or population changes, the bear’s fight for territory becomes more competitive; the delineation and extent of that territory shift and morph under these pressures. With respect to our current bear problem, a poor summer with few fish or berries coupled with an increase in bear population means their food source is too scarce in their own food shed, so the fight for territory between bears has become more vicious. Consequently, the weaker and younger bears that are denied access to prime habitat are pushed out of what we think of as ‘their territory’ and into ‘ours.’ Easy pickings are chicken houses, fruit trees, gardens and garbage; combined with a policy of ‘non-attractants’ it’s not long before bears consider ‘our territory’ theirs. When we add the fact that people are no longer ‘fighting’ back as we once did against these carnivores, their assumption is understandable. Unlike the bears along the river fishing for salmon, who drive us and each other away in order to protect their food source, we humans didn’t even put up a fight when they came and ate all our chickens, turkeys and ducks; nor did we complain when they harvested all our carrots, parsley, plums and pears.

So how do I establish and maintain my border? A border, however loosely defined, only has existence if both sides acknowledge and maintain it. In contrast to predators’ shifting borders, humans have always grown gardens, had fruit trees, and raised domesticated animals in this valley. While the bears’ boundary is shifting, our human boundary has always been clearly delineated (mown lawns, driveways, and often a fence, etc.), and we have throughout history educated the animals by trapping and shooting. Everywhere in the world, people have marked their ‘territory’ by shooting and trapping offenders in this way, and thus they have trained predators not to intrude across the humans’ clearly delineated, and relatively unshifting borders. Like dogs, bears and cougars can be trained, and that is why we have a residual idea that those animals have a natural fear of humans. But there is nothing innate about it; it is a learned behaviour and a direct result of an ancient human-wildlife conflict in which we have always been engaged.

I have come to understand that the remaining predators need constantly to be ‘trained’ not to come where humans are. One of the reasons that the large predators are coming back into cities in broad daylight, and generally to where humans are, is that we are no longer shooting at them. Consequently, they no longer see us as an equal predator, or even as a threat. Contrary to the misconception that these animals are innately nocturnal, they have figured out that they can even get away with being out in the day time, so every year there are more reports of their daytime marauding on farms, and through garage bins in cities. The assertion of my blog respondent, that I am in their territory, creates the misconstrued dichotomy of ‘their territory’ versus ‘our territory’, as if humans only ‘belong’ in cities, and that those cities have always existed. However, all North America’s great cities (the same goes for Europe, India, China and so on, though with different predators) were once the bears’ ‘territory’ before ‘we’ decided to stop being hunter gatherers and develop human settlements, based on cultivating crops.

The ‘our territory/their territory’ theory arises from a flawed preservationist philosophy, which mistakenly presumes that bears have a ‘territory’ which we humans have encroached upon, and now drives policy and legislative decisions in British Columbia (and North American in general, as shown in their responses to my blog). Am I really ‘in the bears’ territory’ when I am in the confines of my property’? If so, isn’t all of the North American population? And most of the European (or Chinese, or Indian, or African, etc.) population too, for that matter? The reason we have the few agricultural areas we do, is that we’ve shot almost everything that once moved there (hence the European eradication of wolves and bears and the dearth of them in large parts of the USA that they formally occupied), and continue to let the survivors know they don’t belong there any more. Our food security depends on our making more enlightened land use policies based on historical and biological realities, not these neat, fantastical conspiracies of cartographers.

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Filed under Animal issues, Bears, Conservation, Educational, Food Security, Food Sovereignty, Fruit Trees, Politicking with predators, Politics of Food, Sustainable Farming

15 responses to “Bears and fruit trees, part 4

  1. I think that often when people say that we are in their “territory,” what they mean is that we are in the bears’ habitat: we live where there are bears, ergo we have to deal with the fact that there are bears. Even for city-dwellers this is often fact; in the heart of Los Angeles there have been mountain lions in Griffith Park and the Santa Monica foothills, too. (Unfortunately city-dwellers often seem to think that wildlife is something that happens to other people, which is why they go hiking in places where perhaps they shouldn’t go alone and unarmed, which is why occasionally said mountain lions drag them into the bushes for a meal…)

    I don’t necessarily disagree with much of what you’re saying; I’ve lived in bear-heavy areas and in both rural and urban regions where the mountain lion populations are heavy (I believe killing them is outlawed here in California, which is why we have approximately a billion of them :D), and I’ve been near enough especially to the lions to need to fear for my life and that of my stock. I suppose what I don’t understand is the response that you’re advocating. I thought when reading your first post on “How to make bears and fruit trees get along” that you might put forward some idea of bear-aversion techniques, but it kind of sounds like your solution to “how to make bears and fruit trees get along” is “kill the bears.” Have I got that right, or is there some deeper concept here that you’re still leading up to?

    There is a need to discourage these large predators away from human food and human habitation, and that might sometimes mean killing them, but to what extent are you advocating that? When I’ve read your posts, and you mentioned it here too, I’ve been thinking, “Well, does that mean we’re going to end up like the UK and have NO large predators?” They are necessary in the ecosystem. They have a niche to fill. So for the sake of food security do we compromise our wildlands? Do we change the whole landscape of our country into farmland and grow a bunch of non-native food species at the expense of native biodiversity? I’m not trying to judge, I’m honestly asking; do you think that’s the approach we ought to take? IMO, it’s going to take some pretty drastic measures to feed all these human beings we keep breeding, and I do wonder if we’re headed in that direction.

    • Hi Mackenzie,

      Yes, there is a deeper concept that I’m leading up to and I will get to my solutions when I write part 5 of the series.

      If you haven’t already read part 1-3 of this series then I encourage you to as it should fill in some gaps for you.

      I said right up front in this post that I’m NOT advocating the killing of the bears but the reality is that we need the right to do so to protect our stock and food sources in this situation. Without this right, we cannot have food security, period. The situation being that the COs are no longer protecting us but instead telling people to cut down their fruit trees. This line of thinking is thanks to the preservationist philosophy they have taken on in terms of wildlife management. (Please see part one of this discussion to understand what is wrong with this thinking ).

      To address the ‘territory’ vs. ‘habitat’ argument you put forth, I think you are correct. I don’t think that people make that distinction. They may mean ‘habitat’ when they say ‘territory’. For example, when a bear comes in to my yard they tell me I am in the bear’s ‘territory’ so I shouldn’t have any rights (again, you have to read the other posts where I address these false beliefs). Making the distinction may help my argument. (I’ll have to think some more about it–thanks for putting it forth).

      In the meantime, we have to remember that all of North America is, or once was, bear’s habitat. But, a lot of it now is human ‘territory’ (my yard included) and that is my point. My yard is in a human settlement and thus is my ‘territory’, and it happens to be near bear ‘habitat’. But, if we say that because it is bear habitat that I don’t belong, then where on earth do humans belong?

      The California cougar problems can be traced to this same principle; they coincide with the outlawing of killing them (preservationist wildlife mgmt). Now you have an overpopulation problem (just like we do with bears, and cougars for that matter!) and an increase of predation on stock and humans. Thanks to the preservationist philosophy that has gripped the imaginations of Universities wildlife biology depts. in North America, we are engaged in a dangerous experiment with the large predators of our countries. I wonder how many people will have to lose their lives before a more reasonable orientation to wildlife management will return.

      What is wrong with conservation? It keeps the humans in the equation where they should be.

      • Hey Kristeva, thanks for the clarifications. I’m glad there’s another part coming… I don’t disagree with anything you’re saying, I just keep feeling like I’m missing a piece! :D I also think it’s very easy for people who’ve never walked out their front door and been confronted by a grizzly bear to say that it’s

        I’m a very conservation-minded person when it comes to wildlife, but IMO at this point the best we can do is try to preserve greater tracts of land and wildlife corridors. When I took my first conservation biology class, I was pretty indignant that the professors and the textbooks all defined conservation biology as “the preservation of species for human use.” For human use?! We can’t just preserve them because they need to be preserved?! But as my professor very reasonably explained, the “for human use” specification is basically the only way that you can get anyone to care, and it’s the only way to realistically look at the world. We are very much the dominant species, and we’re going to do what’s in our best interest. That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for preserving animals like bears, and it doesn’t mean that

        IMO, a lot of what you hear on the very unrealistic side of wanting to save animals has a lot to do with the animal’s cuddly factor. A lot of people who would argue with you ferociously about preservation of bears would see very little problem with trapping and possibly killing giant gators in Florida when they start making off with family dogs… they don’t feel a “connection” to snakes and reptiles like they do to the charismatic megafauna like wolves and bears, and they just don’t care as much.

        I train wild horses and I’m a huge advocate of preserving our mustang populations here in the States, but I recognize that most of the people on my side of the argument are complete idiots who are indulging in their My Little Pony fantasies. The number of absolutely novice (or less than novice) horse people who want to adopt “a beautiful wild stallion” is just insane, and people like me end up trying to clean up the mess years later when that majestic pet stallion has become a dangerous 1500lb animal with atrociously long feet and a penchant for kicking people in the head.

        Anyway, I deeply do not understand the idea of cutting down fruit trees to get rid of bears. Wouldn’t you then also have to get rid of everything else that attracts them, such as kitchens, garbage cans, garbage dumps, restaurants… ?

  2. Monica

    Please pardon my screediness, but I have to respond to some of mackenzie’s points.

    If I understand correctly, you live in California, which has 35 million people living in 150 thousand square miles. Canada has 33 million people living on 4.5 million square miles, mostly located within a few hundred miles of the southern border. There are almost unimaginably large tracts of land where humans do not go. For just one example, Wood Buffalo National Park, in northern Alberta/NWT, is 28000 square miles all by itself (a sixth the size of California), and nearly untouched by humans. It’s devoted solely to providing space for some whooping crane habitat and 5000 buffalo. It’s not even considered a major park in Canada. The situations in California and Canada are not the same.

    Canada has a limited amount of arable land due to the climate. This land base is not expanding. When you ask, “Well, does that mean we’re going to end up like the UK and have NO large predators?” the answer is absolutely no. This is a very large, empty country, with lots of space for humans and nature to coexist without getting too close for comfort. In fact, according to the government, the grizzly bear population in BC is 90% of what it was when the Europeans first arrived, and they are exporting bears to the US to try to restart populations in areas where they could be sustained but were wiped out earlier.

    Good food that nourishes us has to be grown somewhere. I don’t see HDR advocating “kill every bear”. These large, dangerous animals do need to be expelled from inhabited areas. If relocating them works, great. But it often doesn’t. Some bears have been known to repeatedly return hundreds of kilometres to a problem spot, others die after being transported.

    “Do we change the whole landscape of our country into farmland and grow a bunch of non-native food species at the expense of native biodiversity?” I can’t see how that would even be possible in Canada, even if we wanted to. That may be an issue in California, where the climate is amenable to growing so many things, but the climate’s very harsh in most places here, so native plants are often the only things that are able to grow.

    “it’s going to take some pretty drastic measures to feed all these human beings we keep breeding”. These sorts of comments set me on edge a bit, as they imply that we need to stop “breeding” human beings, or at least certain ones. We have been taking drastic measures. Human health and life expectancy have never been higher than now. We grow more food on less land. While I am not a fan of some industrial scale farming practices, people are now able to spend a much smaller portion of their income on food that is generally more nutritious than what would have been available for the same money a hundred years ago.

    It may not be a perfect outcome, but now a large concern is that poor people are too fat, something humanity has never faced before. Until the last hundred years or so, most humans were generally always staring starvation in the eye. Now, desperation for calories has given way to trying to get better nutrition from the food we consume.

    I’ve just finished reading a few books written in the early 20th century, “The Road to Wigan Pier” by George Orwell, and “People of the Abyss” by Jack London. The horrifying conditions, starvation and degradation that the poor people of East London suffered only a few generations ago should serve to remind us that we have come far, though we are not yet finished. There are still people in the world living in conditions we cannot imagine.

    • Thanks for your reply, Monica. I agree, the situations in California and Canada are definitely different. I’m not trying to be combative; I’m honestly trying to figure out what the blogger’s position is here. I don’t really have enough information to have formed one, which is why I’m asking these questions. I honestly want to know: is Kristeva shooting all of the bears that raid her trees? Is that an effective strategy in preventing others from coming in? Are there any other tactics that could or would work? And how does that strategy work in a different environment? Saying that California and Canada are different situations is all well and good, but the implication there is that perhaps different strategies for management of predators might be needed. What works here might not work there, and vice versa. I guess what I’m asking for a deeper exploration of the issue, but it’s not really Kristeva’s job to give me that. I’m just trying to form a deeper understanding, is all.

      And no, I’m not advocating that we stop breeding human beings — and I’m certainly not advocating that we prohibit “certain ones” from reproducing. (Though I certainly think that the world’s about got its quota of billionaires filled at this point.) But it’s a fact that the human population has exploded since industrialization, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Overpopulation is a problem, and it’s going to become more of a problem not just as it relates to climate change and sustainability of food systems but also in availability of fresh water. Those vast untouched tracts of land may not stay untouched for long: California’s wildlands didn’t turn into suburbs overnight, and while certainly some areas of Canada will never be terribly hospitable to human habitation, that doesn’t mean we won’t figure out a way to exploit them and expand into those areas in the future, so just saying that there’s plenty of space for other species doesn’t seem to count for much. The US government, for instance, has quite often removed wild horses that are living in otherwise completely marginal habitats where neither humans nor cattle can eke out a living, just to make way for pipelines, oil and mineral exploration, and other projects. We might not be able to grow food there, but a growing population means a growing need for all resources, not just fruit trees.

      • Monica

        Hello Mackenzie,

        Thanks for the reply, this is a very important subject and you ask some good questions. I just shared some of the Canadian data because a lot of people don’t really think much about Canada, other than in a vague way. We have a lot of room for bears, which is why they are pretty close to their original numbers in BC. The bears are not tearing up the livestock and farms because they have been crowded out of their ancestral home. Like the polar bears in Churchill’s garbage dumps, they’ve learned that they can eat like kings for little to no work or danger there. Why on earth would they leave voluntarily?

        It is not necessary to shoot all of them. While we had the occasional brown bear around when I was growing up, coyotes were the main predator. They never come near the farmsteads or people because the ones that did got shot. No one wanted to eliminate them completely, they keep the small mammal population under control, but they could not be tolerated in close quarters to small livestock or children.

        These days, sixty miles away in the city, hundreds of coyotes live in the river valley and parks system. Fed by well meaning humans and ransacking trash, they have taken to killing cats, and snatching up little dogs in off-leash areas. Children have been attacked by perfectly healthy coyotes. They do not fear humans any longer in the city, although the rural ones still keep their distance, as they would never be allowed to get that close.

        In my experience you don’t have to kill every animal to teach the others to fear humans. But you probably have to kill some of them, regardless of how photogenic they are.

        • Hey Monica,

          Thanks for your answer, that’s a lot clearer to me. (Also, if you have plenty of room in Canada for bears, do you have plenty for me? Because I want to move to British Columbia desperately. :D) I’ve never quite understood how shooting an animal would be a deterrent to others (I mean, do they hear about it through the grapevine or something?), but that does make sense, especially with the coyote example… shooting may not deter the animals from entering your property, but I would guess that making yourself more dangerous does help to give them a longer flight distance, and if they’ve got a long enough flight distance, they’re not even on your place anymore. :D

          So if you have a bear that’s coming on to your property a lot, would you try to deter it with a less lethal weapon before trying to kill it? (I’m given to understand that shotguns won’t do much damage but would sting like hell for a bear, would something like that be effective?) Or would you just be putting yourself in more danger in that way, and it’s better to try to kill the bear immediately?

          I’ve seen how they do the relocation/releases in Yellowstone, but they have bear dogs and rubber pellet guns and trucks and tranquilizers, and obviously that stuff isn’t going to happen that way for the average homeowner. ;D

          • Monica

            British Columbia is gorgeous. I take most of my vacations there, mostly in the interior. While I’m too cheap to move there from my prairie home, I bet the land would be considerably cheaper than California!

            Speaking of relocating bears, my husband grew up just on the edge of the foothills of the Rockies. Not full time bear country, but wandering brown bears were not uncommon. His dad talks about one particular ursine who found the saskatoon bushes and family beehives, and partook of a messy snack.

            The Fish and Game people came, trapped it, and relocated it 60 miles. The bear was back the next day. They repeated this 3 more times, each time moving the bear further away. Eventually the bear killed the family dog and had to be destroyed. No one liked to do it, but that sort of escalation was not acceptable.

            From what I understand, bear deterrents work great, if the bear decides to cooperate and can get food elsewhere with the same amount of work or less.

            It seems to me that many of the bear deterrents work like home security. The bears, like house thieves, may look at the fencing/home alarm sticker and decide to try their fortunes at a less fortified location. If the bear/thief is hungry or determined, however, they will get in. The fence or beeping alarm really only works if the invading party goes along with it.

    • Hi Monica,

      No screediness taken; you outlined your argument very well and respectfully. I enjoyed reading your responses! Thanks for wading in to the discussion. Not many people nowadays understand what you have outlined above: that these are large, dangerous predators that need to be treated as such and that humans do have a place on this earth and a right to territory.



      • Monica

        Thanks Kristeva, I’ve enjoyed this series of posts. It’s a good example of the law of unintended consequences. Well-intentioned people wishing to do the right thing and preserve nature throw out the balance without meaning to, and end up distorting the situation further.

        Predators who are not hunted, but are able to dine on a lush agricultural buffet will reproduce rapidly. That offspring will also stick around because what on earth could be a better gig? The problem will compound.

        Yesterday I found out something I didn’t know when I made my last comment. On a visit with my father and my hometown’s equivalent of your friend Clarence, I learned that elk and cougars have moved into the area. This is mind-blowing, when I was growing up these species lived hundreds of miles away. There are no hunting seasons organized for these animals, as they simply aren’t supposed to be there.

        While the elk aren’t causing any more problems than deer or moose, the cougars have been killing calves for sure, and have been reported stalking humans in a couple of farmyards. I have no idea how many cats there are.

        In Alberta, there’s actually less land being farmed than ever before. Some of this is due to smarter, more intensive land use, some is due to farmers not working the land because their off-farm oilfield jobs are far more lucrative than agriculture. Nature, in its vacuum-abhorring way, is filling the void.

  3. Very interesting post. I enjoyed reading it. Thought provoking.

    - Sheryl

  4. Pingback: Making bears and fruit trees get along « Howling Duck Ranch

  5. ET

    Webinar Series: Managing Human-Wildlife Conflicts in Increasingly Human-Dominated Landscapes

  6. Pingback: Bears and fruit trees – part 5 « Howling Duck Ranch

  7. Pingback: Needless Suffering Comes Home to Roost « Howling Duck Ranch

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