Bears and fruit trees, part two

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 themes (false beliefs) that are pervasive about the human-bear relationship. 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. Other posts in this series are, ‘How to make bears and fruit trees get along‘ and ‘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 #2: We are not in competition with bears

Many people don’t understand that, despite trappings of modern civilization that buffer us from this reality, we are in direct competition with wildlife for our existence. Not only have we lost sight of this fact, but we have also begun to believe that there is a way to ‘live in harmony’ with nature and we work hard to convince ourselves this is achievable.

If you are one of these people, then you are wrong to think this way and here’s why.

Everything out there is trying to make a living just as we are, from the bears, to the fish, to the squirrels, to insects, and bacteria. Since humans have walked on this earth we have been in direct competition with nature for resources and thus have fought to protect these resources. If we weren’t successful, we starved.

Historically, humans hunted for our food and thus we understood our direct relationship with the natural world. We understood that if the wolf population was too high the deer numbers would be low and this would threaten our chance of survival. Consequently, humans understood we needed to kill some wolves in order to protect the deer numbers and, in this way, indirectly protect our own species‘ survival. We understood we were, and must be, part of that equation.

Today, every time we spray our lawns with insecticide, every time we build a new home, each time we pave a road, each time we build a shopping mall or a university, each time we fell trees to make lumber, every time we fill our gas tank, every time we buy some product that has been shipped half way around the world, every time we buy packaged food from the grocery store, and so on, we displace and destroy (or already have replaced and destroyed) the native plants, insects, birds and animals — and the resources they depend upon for their survival — that previously existed in the are area in question for our benefit.

Today however, few people would recognize the environmental cost to changing a track of forest into agricultural land and the inputs necessary to raise a cow, or a pig, or even an acre of soybeans to grow food for humans. Few would understand that it is environmentally more sound to keep the forest in tact and harvest a moose who is perfectly suited to that forest and requires no artificial inputs, let alone be willing or able to make the lifestyle changes necessary to manage that resource.

Only those who can afford food can ‘afford’ to entertain this false belief system.

Few people in North America today rely on hunting or raising food on their own land for their direct economic survival. Instead, we have accepted that large swaths of nature should be severely altered (if not completely destroyed) in order that we can live in city suburbs, and that agricultural (and other) products can be made cheaply and can be transported long distances to us. So it is not that we are no longer directly in competition with nature, rather that the competition is out of sight and out of mind. We are no longer aware of it because we don’t see direct evidence of it on a daily basis.

California’s bears and other flora and fauna have been displaced and/or all but been destroyed, its landscape severely altered to make way for suburbs, highways, orchards and market gardening, and its waterways re-routed for irrigation, as have the Okanagan and Frazer Valleys in British Columbia, great swaths of the prairie provinces across Canada and the USA, and the Niagara region of Southern Ontario. These areas are some of the major agricultural production areas on which we North Americans depend most for our food production and, therefore, survival. That these areas were once wild, and remain domesticated only by force and vigilance, is an idea forgotten or ignored only by those who can afford to buy food instead of growing it themselves (provisioning). It is only those whose economic livelihood is not threatened, those who live an indirect economic lifestyle by selling their time for a wage so they can buy food, clothing, housing, etc., for their (indirect) survival, who can afford to uphold the misconception that we are not in direct competition with wildlife for our existence.

We all are in competition with nature, even urban dwellers. Ironically, it is urban dwellers who are, not only the most food insecure because they are more dependent upon an agricultural production and distribution system that is completely out of their control, but also often the most unaware of how much competition they are in with nature for their survival. How many urbanites consider the tons of pesticides that are sprayed annually on wheat alone to keep the average crop from succumbing to weevils? While weevils are not bears, they too compete directly with us for our wheat!

Which brings me to two other important points about direct competition.

The privilege of living close to nature

We have developed strategies for competing with all aspects of nature, from traps (mice and rodents), to fungicides, herbicides, insecticides (molds, weeds, bugs), to windbreaks and rip-raps (erosion by wind and water). We have become so conditioned to these agricultural weapons that we no longer see them as such. We certainly don’t see weevils on par with squirrels, or squirrels on par with grizzly bears.  Many bear enthusiasts would not object to a farmer spraying crops to prevent weevils from destroying it but would be horrified if the same farmer shot a bear to protect his apples. However, if you were dependent upon the apple crop for your livelihood, or to keep you from starving, you wouldn’t. The privilege of a full stomach affords us the luxury of seeing these two actions as vastly different.  Today, most North Americans would tell me to go buy the apples from the store and save the bear because they are no longer engaged in direct economics and can afford to be blindly unaware of the cold hard realities of what it takes to put food on their tables.

If you have a stomach full of food bought from the grocery store, then you can afford to see squirrels, deer, hawks, and bears as part of the wonders of nature and feel ‘privileged’ that they are traipsing through your yard and let them eat your berries, apples, and carrots. But even then, there is a big difference between tolerating squirrels, deer, and hawks, and tolerating bears and other large predators. Squirrels can’t kill you but large predators can. In order to keep our yards and communities safe, we cannot tolerate large predators in our human settlements, period.

However, if you are dependent upon the food you raise for your economic survival (directly or indirectly) you cannot even afford to let the squirrels eat your strawberries or the deer eat your apples. Imagine that every time a deer came in to your yard you lost 1/3 of your annual wage. How long would it take before the joy of seeing a deer to wear off? How long could you ‘afford’ to feel privileged at losing 1/3 (or more) of your annual salary? In order to have food security, you must have the right to defend the food.

In Defense of Food

In short, humans have a right to livelihood. By that I mean the right to grow food instead of selling our time, collecting a wage, and then spending it at ‘the store’ (where cheap food magically appears). We therefore have the right to defend our food sources just as we did in the past. Salaried employees don’t lose wages when a bear comes through their yards, why should a provisioner or farmer? Some will argue that that should be part of the cost of ‘doing business’ as a farmer. Many will argue that I (and other farmers) should buy electric fencing, install bear proof feed bins, build bigger, stronger, bear proof chicken houses and so on in order to prevent the bear conflict. I am against this line of thinking for three reasons: this argument is based on false belief #1 (that humans can control bear behaviour by removing all attractants); there is little enough (if any) profit to be made in farming these days and the additional cost would make their products out of reach for many consumers; and finally, fencing out large predators and leaving them to roam the neighbourhoods around fence lines does not promote human safety.

If we want sustainable farming to be something that younger people choose as a career, if we want food security for our communities, if we want to have agricultural animals raised ethically and humanely, if we want good clean safe food, if we want the right to livelihood, then we have to support those who are willing to do the work and make it worth their while. Otherwise, we will have to accept that those farmers who could get well paying, secure jobs elsewhere, should get them; that we will have food insecurity; that we will give up our right to livelihood; and that we will have to rely upon the corporate agricultural production and distribution system.

Finally, because we all need to eat and that act displaces large tracks of wilderness in order to ensure our survival, then the cost of maintaining wilderness with its full compliment of flora and fauna, in parallel with local food security, should be borne by all society, not just those who choose to live close to the wild and raise our food.


Filed under Animal issues, Bears, Conservation, Educational, Food Security, Food Sovereignty, Gathering from the wild, Hunting, personal food sovereignty, Politicking with predators, Politics of Food, Sustainable Farming

19 responses to “Bears and fruit trees, part two

  1. Pingback: Bears and fruit trees, part two « Howling Duck Ranch Tree Me

  2. Well said, my friend. It all sounds so good in theory, but reality is so different. We are under fire because we expect our dogs to be guard dogs and not lap dogs. Which means they are not “socialized” to anyone but people they know.

    Again, very well said.

  3. Pingback: Bears and fruit trees, part two « Howling Duck Ranch Direct Me

  4. alison

    Interesting post, well argued, however, I’m not sure I’m totally won over by the argument that human beings are in direct competition with bears and we can’t live “in harmony” with nature.

    I’m a university student, and I just finished writing a paper on Canadian Multiculturalism and Indigenous difference. One of my source materials was George Manuel’s 1974 classic, The Fourth World.

    In that book, he describes his memories of his childhood growing up with his grandparents in the Shuswap in the 1920’s. At that point, colonial processes had not quite taken hold in their corner of the world.

    He wrote that west coast Aboriginals had always been able to provide for their communities in a way European civilizations didn’t – they all had regular access to protein. Their hunter gatherer lifestyle allowed them to live alongside the natural world without feeling they were in competition with the animals.

    Of course, our Western culture has never lived this way, and I’m not proposing we try. However, there’s a certain way of being inherent in Manuel’s writings that is missing in the idea that we are in direct competition with the natural world. What I am proposing is that we try to understand this way of being, learn to live inside of it a little bit, and see where that takes us.

    • Alison,

      I’m not surprised that you can’t see that we are in direct competition with nature. As Francis Bacon so wisely stated, “Man prefers to believe what he prefers to be true.” The dominant cultural belief wants to believe this fallacy that we can live ‘in harmony’ with nature. We don’t want to acknowledge the fact we are in direct competition with nature and, thanks to the buffer that modern technologies afford us, we can pretend it isn’t true. Also, when it comes to the bears in North America, we have moved from a conservationist philosophy to a preservationist one. The big difference is these two belief systems is where we place ‘man’ in nature. The conservationists sees humankind as part of nature whereas the preservationists don’t. So, the preservationist believes that humankind must reduce its exploitation of the natural environment at every level. Of course, the reality is that this only get used when it comes to ‘nature’ and not day to day life. I don’t know where your University is, but if it is somewhere in North America then it was likely once the home of a grizzly bear before some humans decided they wanted the land to educate their own on. That, was (and still is) direct competition.

      Regarding the native question, this is also part of a fallacy that contemporary folks (including some Aboriginals) want to believe. It benefits the Aboriginals in North America to believe, even foster and promulgate, the idea that they lived in harmony with nature. If you want to learn more about this phenomena (called social memisis) then I encourage you to read the works of Francesca Merlan.

      With respect to the relationship the Aboriginals had with the bears: You have to read further back than the 1920s to really gain an understanding of our relationship with the natural world and the realities of the relationship between humans and bears. The fact is that Native peoples hunted black bears for their meat and hides, and they fought with grizzly bears for their survival. It is estimated that there were 10,000 grizzlies in California when the Spanish arrived (where are they now, and how is that not direct competition?). The conflict between man and grizzly bear was very apparent then. In those earlier writings (late 1700s) you can read accounts about grizzlies attacking the Natives when they were away from their villages (for example when they went hunting), and that many Natives were killed and devoured by the bears. When the Spaniards moved in to this California, they unleashed the army on the grizzlies in the area. Once they were eliminated from the area the Natives moved their camps closer to the Spaniards to be safe. There are accounts of the Natives bringing gifts to the Spaniard and thanking them for destroying their enemy, the grizzly bear.

      I am not surprised that Manuel’s writings don’t reveal any of this. For one thing, he is far too late in history to have seen the fight between man and bear directly. Also, the Natives here on the west coast, unlike the prairie Natives, had a fighting chance with the bears and thus weren’t as affected so he may not have even been aware of what was taking place around him. This was due to the fact they lived in heavy forest which facilitated a technological weapon they could use effectively against the bears: snares and deadfalls. This gave them the ability to suppress the local bear populations quite effectively. Of course, once the Spaniards were here and trading with the Natives, then guns became the weapon of choice. You only need to look at the historic grizzly bear range to realize that we are in direct competition with them for land and resources. I don’t see any grizzlies walking through Seattle, Los Angeles, or Vancouver.

      Incidentally, Aboriginals who today live with ‘grizzlies in their midst’ still don’t put up with them coming into their communities.

      Finally, you bring up another fallacy, that ‘Western Culture’ (which culture is that exactly?) never lived like the Natives. This is simply wrong. All of humankind once lived as hunter-gatherer clans. It is just further back in our history for some than others.

      • alison

        My University is in Abbotsford, it’s on Sto:lo land. Sure, it probably once was bear territory. I’m not debating that.

        However, I do want to clarify what I meant by “Western culture” – it’s the culture spawned by industrialism, imperialism and colonialism. It’s the culture now carried out by tv, malls, mass media advertising, consumerism, McDonalds, neoliberalism, transnational corporations, etc. It’s not any specific culture, like Irish Canadian or Metis. It’s not meant to be an academic term, just an opinion on what it is to be “Westernized” these days. I really don’t think “Western culture” existed when the descendants of the European colonizers of North America were living tribally, as hunter-gatherer clans.

        And, absolutely, all human beings originally came from hunter-gatherer clans, and for most of us, it is indeed very far back in our history. I’m just saying we can learn something from cultures who lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle in living memory.

        The problem I have with the idea of “direct competition” is that it seems to be premised on the ideas of domination, and conquering, like there can only be one winner. But if human beings are the winners, and if we wipe out all the bears, isn’t there something irretrievably lost from the ecosystem? I’m no biologist, and thus I certainly can’t support my opinion with evidence, or a decent argument, but I’m pretty sure there’s going to be an impact on our livelihood if we so alter the planet.

        I’m just suggesting that we could learn to shift our way of being in the world such that we can live and let live, that we don’t feel it is necessary to exterminate bears to make the world safe.

  5. This is a very interesting discussion, and one that I struggle with. I agree that humans are in direct competition with the animals and that we are both after some of the the same things, like food. If I did not put up fences and chase away deer and moose, trap voles, and frighten away ravens I would have very little food to eat myself and would indeed be forced to partake in the worlds less than desirable food system.

    I can also understand Alison’s point of view and do make every attempt possible to live with and not disturb nature. Our property is a habitat for many of the same animals I listed above, but there are definite borders…there has to be or I would not be able to grow or raise any of my own food.

    I don’t believe it is possible for 6-7 billion people to become subsistence farmers and hunter gatherers in this day and age. So in reality the strong (humans) survive and the weak (animals) get pushed aside…although I would not be surprised if nature did not one day reclaim this planet from us. I don’t like this but it is how things are. Perhaps one of the best things we can do these days is to make sure that our national forests and parks remain in tact and try to live much more lightly on this planet. That’s pretty vague, but this is a very complicated issue.

    I suppose that if we did all live in small communities like Alison’s aboriginals things could change, but how will that ever happen, and what would be the consequences? I am going to see if I can find and read that book though “The Fourth World.” It does sound very interesting.

    What I do know is that I’m certainly not going to chop down my fruit trees and give away my land but will do my best to live in harmony with nature while at the same time defending my food sources from nature.

    Having walked down into my lower field today I think I would much rather share it with the deer and moose than the slobs that trespassed through and left garbage behind.

    One thing that I am sure of is that I will never sell this property and it will always be a haven for wildlife and at the same time support my familys food needs, at least that is my intention.

    • It is an interesting discussion. You have described very well your ‘battle’ with nature from the erecting of fences to chasing away deer, moose, voles, birds, etc. What I find really interesting is that even though you understand the issue from a first hand point of view and agree with me that we are in direct competition with nature (which only those who grow their own food and depend on it can), you finish by saying you will do your best to ‘live in harmony’ with nature! I think it helps prove my point about how difficult cultural beliefs are to let go of. We want this to be true. It sounds good.

      Ironically, it is probably those of us who are doing this (raising and depending upon the food) who want to be closest to nature. I know that taking on this lifestyle has dramatically altered my view of the world. I too once thought we could live in harmony with bears, nature, etc. But now I understand more fully (and directly) the extent of the battle going on around me every day. It has been an amazing adventure and education to take this on and at the same time a painful journey of letting go of previously cherished beliefs!

      Incidentally, ‘borders and boundaries’ will be the subject of my next post. Thanks for the perfect segue!

  6. Your right, I agree, we can’t actually live in “harmony” with nature, not ever. I mean eventually the bear will eat you or you it. I suppose what I should have said was to live with nature but at the same time apart…as in we can tolerate each other until we can’t. We will always be as the wolf is to the bear. Two opportunistic predators circling each other, ever watchful and certainly never fully trusting of one another. I will pick berries on one side of the hill and the bear on the other, when we get to close there will be an issue that could have a variety of outcomes.

    Obviously it is much different to have deer wandering around your property than bear or lion. I love watching, and if lucky, even filming bears in the wild. But I would certainly not want to be tripping over them in the dark of my property…there is a big difference, I understand.

    I am glad that the bears that I speak of are still very skittish and for the most part only found in the wild which often makes them much more afraid of us then we are of them. Having a group of grizzly bears that were not afraid of people hanging about in my yard would not be a harmonious environment for me either.:)

    I am very much looking forward to your next post and although I do tend to be a little too fanciful when it comes to nature I truly do understand the reality of it. Certainly not as much as you who are daily, deep in the midst of it. I sometimes envy you for that.

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

  8. sabrina

    “As Francis Bacon so wisely stated, “Man prefers to believe what he prefers to be true.”

    This could also apply to you.
    Interesting …. yesss?

    • I’m sure it does on some issues!

      However, it also goes with the adage, ‘Don’t confuse me with the facts.’ In other words, folks tend to belief what they want to be true in spite of the facts. In my case, my ‘beliefs’ are not beliefs about this subject, but knowledge based on years of research (both scientific and empirical). Believe me, I once believed that we could live in harmony with wildlife and it has been a painful process of letting go while educating myself about the facts. I still want to believe it but I now know (as distinct from believe) it is not feasible, realistic, or factual.



  9. Pingback: Bears and fruit trees, part three « Howling Duck Ranch

  10. Altan

    I liked the post because I knew of some issues you mentioned but you introduced a whole another thinking on this subject which I never thought of. Your reasoning of fences is like for me with my car door.

    I leave it unlocked that someone will rather open the door, take whats of value rather smash an expensive window and find nothing good. Locking the door does stop teenagers from having a fun night out with your car, but a criminal who needs quick cash will be getting in with what ever force necessary. Same for bears I assume, the fencing will ward off bears who don’t feel like expending calories for a simple fruit or not hungry enough. A bear who hasn’t had a meal in weeks will be getting in no matter what, or mozy on towards the neighbors yard for grub.

    Since it is a shared problem, everyone fending for themselves by building barriers won’t solve it. It gives the “better him than me” attitude when someones fruit is eaten by bears. When your livley hood is taken by wild animals, your wage reduces and the only insurance you have is a neighbor feeding you. Last thing you need is drawing borders with neighbors.

    I wouldn’t know if this suggestion helps but why not plant fruit trees in the wild enviroment or on the outskirts of town. Given if they flourish, no human involvment of pruning/watering would be needed. Somewhere with this idea you could teach bears to forage in no human settlements, or forming a good habit of looking elsewhere.

    Everyone has their own “bears” eating their weath away let it be:water scarcity, ground toxins, insects, weather cond. etc.

  11. Allison K.R.

    Almost every wild species that I can think of, with the exception of fish will in some way become a predator of your farm harvests, so by extension of your rationale, should we just start blasting away at all the moose, deer, coyotes, foxes, weasels, ground squirrels, voles, moles, birds of prey and fruit eating birds, mice, rats, dogs, and cats as well? A futile proposition. Your dismissal of electric fencing as a win-win option when it comes to keeping grizzlies from your farm animals and fruit orchards is short-sighted. I farm in Southwest Montana between the Crazy and Bridger Mountain ranges. The Crazies have confirmed grizzly populations. We also have black bear. I intend to plant apples. I also intend to put up a deterent fence around several acres of my farm to protect my hard work and harvests. Fencing to keep unwanted animals at bay was always part of the equation, and as a farmer concerned about the bottom line, I don’t see how it couldn’t be in the equation for any truly economically-inclined farmer. In my experience, to use electric in the fencing plan would cost me just a few hundred bucks more than just a regular old 7′ deer fence, which is an absolute requirement, bears or not, if we want reliable harvests. Electrical pulses have so far successfully deterred all coyotes and other ground based predators from our poultry flock. Several strands of electrified wire in combination with 3′ of sheep fencing and other smooth wires to the aforementioned height, with an adjacent electrified wire 3′ up and outside of the main fence to seems pretty bear proof to me. Why the weak argument against fencing? If the bears can’t get to the crops, they’ll move on, because that is how they feed, across large territories. I have seen canines with their wet noses on my fencing learning a sharp lesson. Other facts contributing to wildlife encroachment on ag lands are the wholesale elimination of preferred native food sources, such as chokecherry, serviceberry, hawthorn, and other thicket forming berry producers, from ag lands in the 1900s. Producers of old were taught that native species were unproductive, harmful to bovines, and wasteful in the farm plan, an affront to the neatly managed monocrop mindset. I see native fruit producing plants as an essential element to a healthy ecosystem for wildlife and farms for all the good they provide: windbreaks, riparian stabilization and shading of waterways which provides more optimal fish habitat and protects the water source from heat-related evaporative loss, alternative food for rodents and birds, which feed other higher-ups on the food chain, and last but not least, food value for humans. Protected and restored riparian corridors provide safe passage and habitat for larger mammals. These riparian zones have been exclusively managed for the short-sighted and short term goals of us humans for decades throughout North America, and beyond, but we have missed their central importance to ecosystem health beyond our own needs. It is possible to conduct the business of farming while using our vast array of modern technologies to minimize our human impact on the rest of the natural world. That means, to me, not spoiling for a fight, but using my “superior” human brain to adapt to challenges and plan accordingly. We have only begun to unravel the myriad ways that the interrelations of diverse species in a healthy functioning ecosystem can impact our own isolated and egocentric existence, and increase its health and resilience. My view is that we use deterrent fencing to meet our practical goals, while allowing for the needs of wildlife by providing open corridors for migration and safe passage. Would we need to collaborate with neighbors? Absolutely. Isn’t collective action, localized solutions, and community what the local foods movement that we belong to all about? You use this imagery about battling with nature, but you are missing an important, if yet poorly disseminated, piece of the sustainable farming ethic, which is that we will farm best not by fighting nature (the corporate modus operandi), but by mimicking its design to the best of our abilities and using our technologies wisely, and by doing so, reaping the rewards with minimum impact on the rest of the world, and on ourselves.

    • My point against the fencing is this, if I am to fence my yard sufficiently to keep out grizzly bears and cougars (which, I am told, would cost between $60-100,000), I only keep me and my animals safe. What of the young children who are walking down the street outside my fence-line on their way to school? Or the young mothers with their babies in strollers? How do we then keep them safe from the bears and cougars who are now also walking down the same fence-line having been forced to go around my property by the newly installed fence?

      My argument against the fencing is not simply a question of farming and food security, it is a holistic argument which includes community safety.


  12. queen of string

    As a new resident of Fraser Valley, this is an issue I am facing at the moment.

    I live on a modern housing estate, with a fairly small yard, nevertheless I would like to grow what I can on the land that I have.

    The problem is that last year we had a brown bear sat on the porch eating our garbage. Removing the garbage attractant was simple. I am just concerned that by feeding myself I am increasing my chances of that bear in my yard, eating my produce or me. I know it’s sentimental, but it’s hardly the bear’s fault, there have only been houses here for a couple of yrs 😦

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

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

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