Tag Archives: Conservation

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

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.

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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

Making bears and fruit trees get along

I’ve recently been involved in a discussion with the BC Food Systems Network about the relationship between bears and food security. In terms of food security, this issue is an extremely important one for anyone living where large predators exist. I plan to write about it over several posts in order to dispel some common misconceptions about the human-predator relationship in terms of food security, and to propose some practical solutions.

Please feel free to voice your opinions in the comments section. I welcome the input, as it gives us all a chance to talk about this important issue. Your comments also provide me with food for thought, and the chance to develop my ideas.

How to make bears and fruit trees get along

A member of the BC Food Systems Network recently wrote about their community’s experience with the Conservation Service. According to this source, the COs in their area, instead of dealing effectively with any nuisance bears, are threatening people with fines if they don’t cut down their fruit and nut trees. While outraged with this Ministry’s attitude, I’m not surprised by it. Here in the Bella Coola Valley, too, people are being advised to cut down their fruit trees by the Conservation Service, instead of being offered support, protection (part of their motto!), and–oh, yes–conservation.

False belief #1: The ‘remove the attractant’ theory

In terms of food security, the idea that we must ‘remove all attractants’ to prevent bears from entering our communities is a dangerous line of thinking (particularly in light of our economic times). The logic may sound reasonable when you are living in the city and dealing with a bear in your garbage can. However, it is not consistent with the goals of food security, because in rural BC there is no limit to the list of attractants. Therefore, we cannot have food security in our communities and be consistent with these Ministry guidelines.

Most specifically, and to put it simply:  if we ascribe to the notion that humans can control bear behaviour by ‘removing the attractants’, then we cannot raise food. Fruit trees, berry bushes, carrots, and parsley all attract grizzly bears. Chickens, ducks, sheep, goats, and rabbits, all attract grizzly bears. The duck feed, the goat feed, and the chickens’ corn all attract grizzly bears. Fields of corn and oats attract bears. Beehives attract bears. (Many of the above also attract a host of other predators that threaten our food security, such as eagles, foxes, wolves, cougars, mice, owls, hawks, martin, weevils, and so on.)

If we are to be consistent with the ‘remove the attractant’ theory, then the next ‘logical’ step is to pass public policy laws that forbid people from raising their own food. In order to ‘remove all the attractants’ we will have to cut down all the fruit trees, plant no vegetable or herb gardens, and get rid of all the feed and grain for our agricultural animals–chickens (see Needless Suffering), ducks, geese, goats, pigs, turkeys, sheep, and so on–lest we be seen to be ‘baiting’ the bears. Instead, maybe we could free range our agricultural animals? No.  To be consistent with the ‘non-attractant theory’ we must leave it to the corporate agricultural producers who can afford (both ethically and financially) to keep animals indoors, behind Fort Knox type fenced areas, or on feedlots.

New Jersey Example

The idea of removing the attractants simply doesn’t work. This line of thinking got the state of New Jersey into its conundrum with their bears. They have gone a long way down this path, having made city wide efforts of removing the ‘attractants’ from their city streets and neighbourhoods. They have made huge efforts to limit the times in which garbage could be out on the street for collection, and even made centralized collection stations. Nevertheless, despite the fact they have removed all the so called ‘attractants’, bears have NOT stopped coming into people’s yards. Now accustomed to viewing human settlements as good food sources, bears are now entering houses. We should learn from their experience instead of continuing down the same path.

If we are going to have, and support, real food security in our province, we have to change the way we look at this problem. If not, then we will eventually lose the right to keep fruit trees, grow gardens, and raise animals for food. The evidence of this is revealed in the current attitude of British Columbia’s Conservation Service Officers.

Living under siege

The idea that humans are responsible to not ‘attract’ the bears is ridiculous. Humans have always grown gardens, had fruit trees, and domesticated animals in places where large predators roamed. Since humans have been on earth they have been in direct competition with other large predators for their food (livelihood) and, by shooting, trapping, snaring, or other aggressive measures, have trained these wild animals not to intrude into their human settlements. Until very recently, we have known and understood our relationship with the natural world; part of our role was teaching wildlife what is appropriate behaviour. We have lost that understanding now that most of us buy food from the grocery store, agricultural production is out of sight and out of mind, and the closest we get to a grizzly bear is by watching the Discovery Channel,

It is time to re-educate ourselves to re-educate the bears. Even the Conservation Officer Service acknowledges that humans  can ‘teach bears bad habits’, so why not teach them some good ones?

To view the series of posts on this topic, see:

Part two

Part three

Part four

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Filed under Agriforestry, Animal issues, Bears, Conservation, Educational, Ethical farming, Food Security, Food Sovereignty, Fruit Trees, personal food sovereignty, Politicking with predators, Politics of Food, Sustainable Farming, Vegetable gardening

Goldilocks and the three bears

Compared to previous years, it has so far been a summer free of bears here in the valley. Friends visiting have been disappointed to see none on the hour long drive from the foot of the hill down the valley to our community, and I’ve heard of no home or chicken shed invasions since late spring. One theory is that this summer’s forest fires have spooked them all back up the side valleys; if that’s the case, maybe we should organize for a controlled burn every spring!

Not that there haven’t been close encounters. My own was in July, when my dog was more than usually vocal one night. Usually she’ll bark off an intruder once or twice a night, while I lie in bed judging the size of the attacker by the distance Tui moves away from the house towards the perimeter fences. If I hear her echoing against the forest in the distance, it’s a fox, while if she stays close to the front porch and whines, it’s a cougar.

This night it was an in-between barking distance so I knew it was a bear, whose size I didn’t know until dawn when I went out to free the turkeys, laying chickens and meat birds from their respective barns. The stucco wire fence and gate adjoining two of them had been broken down, probably with one swipe of a massive paw, dragging a rail along with a six inch nail away from a wall (see photo).

Fence rail smashed down beside meat bird run.

He or she (I suspect it was a she as each year I meet a mama grizzly in our yard with her cubs at some point) was probably excited by the smell or sound of our turkey flock, several of whom perch on the open window sill behind stucco wire, to take advantage of some cooler night breezes. If the bear had been insistent (as we had seen on other properties) our plywood walls would not still have been standing, but they were. I walked thirty meters along the fence line to the forest edge, the bear’s normal trail and entry point into our property, and sure enough, there was the flattened trail in the same place as previous years.

Fence smashed beside turkey barn.

I began taking my windfall apples and dumping them there as peace offering, but they haven’t been touched in three weeks. This hot summer has meant a good year for wild berries, and now the creeks are full of writhing salmon, so we may be spared any bear predations this fall.

Bear path into my yard where I leave apples for her.

Nevertheless, it would be foolish to give myself or you the impression that the bears aren’t around. My friend Clarence told me just the other day that his daughter, who lives across the highway from his place ‘on our side’ (as he put it ominously) stepped out from her back door last week midmorning to confront a grizzly only meters away. And when I went to pick blackberries in Clarence’s patch last week in the last of our heat, I was un-nerved to come across a maze of flattened vines and grasses. I suddenly felt I was in the middle of a vast alfresco restaurant, with various intimate nooks where bears had lain in the shadows and feasted on the berries hanging off the ‘walls’ in all directions. It was strange to think that a giant paw may have recently brushed over the very berries I was now tenderly plucking. Clarence confirmed the fact by complaining that there is a mama black bear and cub that have been frolicking in the blackberry patch “flattening it and making a mess”.

While picking I was always on the lookout for the mama ‘just in case’. My theoretical ‘bum-per’ sticker says ‘I brake for bears.’

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Filed under Animal issues, Bears, Politicking with predators, Politics of Food

Rod and Gun Club dinner and dance

David Hall's cougar watches over the Rod and Gun Club annual dinner and dance.

David Hall's cougar watches over the Rod and Gun Club annual dinner and dance.

Last weekend we held the annual Rod and Gun Club fundraiser dinner and dance. In preparation for the dinner, the members of the Rod and Gun Club prepared the meat they hunted this fall, butchered farm raised food animals, and taxidermied animals for the display. Earlier in the year, I helped Clarence butcher the turkey he planned to donate and also helped his son, David, skin and butcher out the cougar which he recently prepared for the display. The dinner provided me the opportunity to bring my duck breeding venture to a close. I butchered the last of the Muscovy ducks and took them to the dinner.

Gary carving the elk, moose and grizzly bear roasts.

Gary carving the elk, moose and grizzly bear roasts.

The vast array of different foods there was surprising given the small community and was a testament to the amount of ‘industry’ the people in this valley are involved in. I could have tried every kind of meat on offer but managed to limit myself to what I could fit on the plate and still be able to remember which meat was which by the time I got from the smorgasbord back to the dinner table. On offer was nearly everything one could imagine and then some: deer, moose, caribou, elk, wild boar, duck, turkey, beaver, llama, black bear, grizzly bear, and of course, David’s cougar. He presented it freshly roasted as well as smoked sausage and hams.

Animals of hunting trips past on display at the game dinner and dance.

Animals of hunting trips past on display at the game dinner and dance.

I tried everything except the caribou and beaver. I had tried caribou before and the beaver just wouldn’t fit anywhere on the plate by the time I got to it, though it did look delectable having been made up into a beautifully presented stir-fry. I was surprised to see that the dinner even catered to vegetarians, with salads of various kinds and several versions of tofu, vegetable stir-fries and bean dishes. I also took a home made loaf of bread and others had made rolls and biscuits. The meal was scrumptious and most of us ate far too much, but I did manage to save room for dessert!

What struck me most about the dinner, besides the fact that it was such a  unique example of local culture and something particular to this valley, was the fact that the vast array of meats differed little from each other. I was expecting to notice a greater difference in texture and taste between the carnivorous animals and the ruminants. My favourite meat was the elk, with the cougar and the grizzly bear roasts tied for second place. So similar in taste and texture were most meats that I’m certain I could feed my mother a grizzly bear roast and tell her it was beef! Of the options I sampled, the animal that had the most distinctive taste was the llama.

The Rod and Gun Club puts on this dinner and dance every year to raise money for the club and to raise awareness of hunting and animal conservation. Many would find it curious, if not ironic, that the hunters in this valley are some of the most aware of conservation and environmental issues and the most active people in terms of environmental conservation and preservation of animals. They are by far the most knowledgeable bunch of folks I have ever had the pleasure of learning from about the complexities of the natural world around us and the balance of nature.

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Filed under Animal issues, Bears, Conservation, Cougars, Educational, Food Security, Hunting, Locavore, Politics of Food

Cougar capers come to an end

These cougar tracks were made in front of the Fish Hatchery buildings.

These cougar tracks were made in front of the Fish Hatchery buildings.

The day before yesterday, two hunters ‘let the games begin’, and came out winners. Not only have we been victimized by marauding bears this week, but also there has been a cougar, as one neighbour succinctly put it, “terrorizing the neighbourhood”. The cougars ‘games’ began several weeks back when it killed and ate several pet cats, attacked at least two dogs and killed one (that I know of). It has also been feeding on deer from the wild, and was finally spotted again two days ago.

Thankfully, cougar hunting season is open and a couple of hunters took up the challenge and started tracking the cat. The first couple of times, it led them through people’s barns, yards, and even through someone’s shop (and the people hadn’t known it was there!). In the end, the the daylight hours proved too short and the cougar too elusive.

The alarm was raised in the morning when a hatchery worker arrived at work and, spotting the tracks in the snow all around the buildings, immediately notified the hunters. It led the men on a merry chase for several hours in the worst of conditions we’ve had this winter: bitter cold, extreme slush, lousy footing, and icy streams. It led them across several streams (they broke through the ice up to their crotches), then back and forth several times until their dogs finally treed the cougar just beyond the airport, not far from my house, and they shot it; it was a healthy adult male, weighing in at 128 pounds.

I’m relieved because I have seen him around my place, prowling at night. Thanks to him and the raucous vigilance of my dog, many a sleepless night was had these past few weeks. It makes for nerve wracking animal husbandry efforts, knowing that there is a cougar on the prowl, particularly when I have to go out to the goat pen in the wee hours of the morning and again at night in the dark (4.30 pm), to fetch them out or in. With a nod to the cougars’ recent habituation to our community, many people have said about my goats, “Enjoy them while you have them.”

I worry for my animals every day, and I’ve lost lots of them to the various species of resident wildlife. When a cougar is on the prowl, I worry about my goats and dog especially. But what is a girl to do? On the one hand, it is good to leave my dog out because she is my ‘early warning system’ and, for an inexperienced cougar, possibly just enough of a deterrent to make him change his mind. However, the reality is that she is no match for a determined cougar and so she may lose her life if I let her stay outside–even during the day (dogs here are often referred to as ‘cougar bait’ because so many are taken each year).

Cougars are getting more and more bold here in the valley, and we are the worse off for it. Not only have they taken dogs from yards; they have begun taking them right in front of the people walking them, and, on at least one occasion, while one was still on the leash! To date they have killed our pets and attacked adults, severely injuring them, and I fear for our school children who walk to school and play on the school grounds during recess (two cougars were spotted on the Native school grounds last year). Is this any way to live?

When discussing our problems with cougars the other night, the Conservation Officer (who had been dispatched from Williams Lake to deal with our chicken-killing marauding bear) told me we shouldn’t fear cougars. Instead, he said, we should respect them. I felt like saying, ‘Tell that to Cindy Parolin’s family, or to her son, who was attacked first by the cougar, and whose life she was defending when she lost hers, because the cougar killed and half ate her alive before someone shot it.’ Or say that to the myriad other families who have lost loved ones to cougars (or bears), sometimes in their own backyards.

If I don’t have to fear cougars, why have there been these deaths? Why does all the literature on cougars (even from our own Ministry!) advise us to defend ourselves strenuously if attacked. It warns us not to play dead because, unlike non-predatory type bear attacks, when a cougar attacks it intends to kill and eat you. Cougar attacks are always predatory, yet this man, whose job is to serve and protect the public, believes we shouldn’t fear them? Puh-leeease.

The cougar I no longer have to fear.

The cougar I no longer have to fear.

Most people in the valley who hear that kind of statement laugh at the ridiculousness of it. Why? Because they know what a cougar can do to you. The doctors and nurses here know what the cougar (and bear) injuries look like. They know that it only takes 4.5 mins for someone to bleed out if a jugular vein is cut by a claw or fang. Not only that; they are acutely aware of the severely limited operating capacity of our remote hospital. They know just how lucky the few who have been attacked were, to get away with their lives.

In addition, the people here know that there has been a recent change in cougar (and bear) behaviour, and that the new Ministry of Environment policies outlawing the hunting and trapping of cougars and bears as a preventative protection measure are at least partially responsible (and likely the major contributing factor) for the change in predator behaviour.

Unfortunately, the majority of our population now resides in cities, and this majority is creating the policies that us rural folk have to live with. The sad thing is, even though many people have lost their lives because of this thinking, the rules and legislative policies are still not changing. Our society is running an incredibly dangerous experiment by presuming we can ‘live in harmony’ with wildlife. We can’t, never have, never will. It’s a dangerous fallacy and a ridiculous fantasy.

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Filed under Animal issues, Conservation, Cougars, Ethical farming, Food Security, Goats, Politicking with predators, Politics of Food

Bears still wreaking havoc

Well, it’s been two more days and the bear is still on the loose. It has hit two more people’s chicken shed, completely wiping their flocks out. Here’s hoping the Conservation Officer is able to trap them. If he is successful, we then have to hope he will kill them and not just relocate them, and the problem, elsewhere!

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Filed under Animal issues, Bears, Conservation, Politicking with predators

More politicking with predators

 I might have hung upside down for half a day, but I could still take you.

I might have hung upside down for half a day, but I could still take you.

Yesterday, on my way out of the farm I noticed a dead bird wrapped up in the fishing net we use to protect our chickens and ducks. ‘Aha,’ I thought, ‘there is the little beggar that has been feasting on my ducklings.’ From a hatch of twelve only one survived; the others were pecked off day by day. It was like  I was living through scenes from an Agatha Christie novel: and then there was one.

I didn’t have the time to cut the corpse out of the net at the moment, so I resolved to do it when I got back. Of course, by the time I returned, the builder was just on his way for the day and wanted to update me on his progress. We toured the barn and I oohed and aahed at the appropriate pauses in his descriptions. As I escorted him off the farm we stood over the gate discussing when he’d return to finalize some details, and a movement caught my eye. The little beggar in the net was staring at me as if to say, ‘I’ve got a bit of a situation here, would you mind?’

“My gosh, it’s alive,” I blurted mid-sentence and ran over to it. Elmer, seconds from a clean getaway, reluctantly said, “What’s alive?” I answered by updating him on my morning’s experience, as I ran over to see if I could untangle the bird. What I thought had been a small hawk turned out to be a small owl. The poor wee creature had been hanging there for hours. I went to get him untangled when Elmer leaped into action. “Watch yourself!” he hollered, launching himself through the gate and coming to my aid, “Them little buggers can really bite.” This he announces after I’ve wrapped my bare hands around the feathery little body.

Having been foolishly intimate with a long and distinguished list of wild animals during my life without protection,  I promptly let go and went to get my gloves. As Elmer and I worked to get the little fellow loose, he gnashed his beak like a ferocious little bear. It was quite hilarious, if not a bit unnerving. I always love the feistiness of little creatures when they are in full swing performing their best, ‘I could take you if I could’ repertoire. I mean, this little owl is maybe six inches tall if an inch, and was managing to make both of us jumpy through his efforts! Thankfully, he seemed more hell bent on biting Elmer than myself. Hmm, maybe he’s actually a she.

So she’s presently in my garage in a box. Later that day, a friend dropped by–the one who incubated our first batch of chickens and (we later found out) was also responsible for the sudden appearance of muscovy ducks on our pond. When I explained my planned release he queried, “So you’re going to liberate the animal which has been killing your stock?”

“Well, all the ducklings are gone now. And since we put up that netting after the first slaughter, I think he’s just learnt his lesson and won’t be back.” There was a just perceptible shaking of the head as he finished sipping his coffee in silence.

Now I have to go see if she’s OK, and release her!

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Filed under Animal issues, Conservation, Politicking with predators, Sustainable Farming

Politicking with predators

Even these two are in competition for their livelihood.
Even these two are in competition for their livelihood. Photo: Michael Wigle, Jumping Mouse Studio

Living in harmony: a false belief system

Until two years ago, I had thought that I could live ‘in harmony’ with nature and wildlife. I didn’t own a gun and didn’t want one. I had the ‘citified’ belief of a newbie to the area that if I didn’t bother the bears, then the bears wouldn’t bother me–ditto for cougars, foxes, etc. However, it is simply not true no matter how much you want to believe it. Everything out there is trying to make a living just as I am. Unfortunately, when you are trying to make a living by raising all your own food, you present a sumptuous smorgasbord to a host of predators.

Not only that: if you do as I was doing–let an area of the land or lawn ‘go back to nature’ (as gardening tips in magazines for city-slickers suggest, in order to create habitat and lessen one’s carbon footprint)–what you end up with is just that: habitat. This is a great idea for urban folk and for those living in less wild areas than rural/remote British Columbia. There are wonderful stories of people living ‘in harmony’ with nature in this way: ‘Isn’t it cute to see deer re-populating this valley’; ‘We now have a riot of bird calls in the morning,’ and the like. However, I have come to learn that this idea cannot be applied universally, and certainly not to the conditions in which I live, because what I have managed to do here is create a wonderfully rich and diverse cover for the large predators (one that camouflages a cougar, for instance, quite nicely) as they find their way to that ‘sumptuous smorgasbord’.

This is a big topic and one that engages and enrages people depending upon their view and experience, of and with, the subjects. So here’s my story.

Facing reality: a shift in beliefs

So there I was on a gorgeous, sunny day quietly minding my own business, head down planting my strawberry runners into a new patch–which happened to be quite close to the area I had set aside to let nature have her way with. I was taking care to build the beds up into raised beds so that next year they would come on early, when suddenly I got the feeling I was being watched. At first, I thought I was just being silly and tried to shake the feeling off. However, after several minutes the hairs on the back of my neck stood up, so I paid attention. ‘Cougar,’ I thought, ‘I’m being watched by a cougar.’

I took a look around to see if I could spot anything and when I didn’t, I thought, ‘This is just paranoia creeping in, because you are alone on the farm without a dog (aka my early warning system).’ I went back to what I was doing. A few minutes later when the feeling would not go away, I decided that I had better listen to my instincts and head inside. I put on a pot of coffee and began to make my lunch. While filling the kettle I stared out the kitchen window at the new strawberry patch, and out from the long grass came the cougar. It was a big, full grown cat easily outweighing me.

Calling for back-up

I called the Conservation officer right away and he came running, literally. I’m lucky to live right across the street from the office. He and a biologist came with the CO’s dog and tried to track the cougar, but to no avail. ‘Grass is too long,’ he said. That perfect cover for the cougar also meant he couldn’t be tracked!

After lunch, I abandoned my Martha Stewart aspirations and got out my power brush cutter. As I mowed down the beautiful mixed grasses, wildflowers and lilies, I again got the feeling of being watched. This time I immediately came inside the house. Again, within a minute of my getting inside, out jumped the cougar. This time, he was headed back towards the CO’s office. Sure enough, a few seconds later his dog was barking excitedly and moments later the chase was on.

Unfortunately, the CO and his one dog were not a match for the cougar and it got away.  I say unfortunately, not because I want to kill cougars, but because I wanted that cougar killed. It has kept coming back and consequently, I no longer feel very safe on the farm. After that incident, I felt violated and unsafe in my own home. The feeling was akin to the feelings evoked by a home robbery I experienced in the city. Now I felt my personal space once again violated, but this time on a much greater scale. This cougar could cost me my life, or at least the life of some of my animals, and therefore my livelihood.

Myths and Realities

There are many issues here, too many for me to deal with comprehensively in one post. For example, we should really have more than one Conservation Officer in this area. It is really dangerous work and they should  not have to face these predators alone. But this issue in itself is huge, so I’ll leave it at that.

Another is, and this will upset some readers, that this cougar should have been shot. These kinds of predators need to be ‘trained’ (or retrained, as the case may be) not to come where humans are. One of the reasons that the large predators are coming back into cities 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. These animals have figured out that they can get away with being out in the day time, so every year there are more reports of them marauding on farms, and through garage bins in cities. If you don’t want to take my word for it, read the books by bear behaviour expert, Gary Shelton: Bear Attacks, Bear Attacks II, and Bear Attacks: Myth and Reality.

The bible on the realities of bear encounters.
The bible on the realities of bear encounters.

As for me, the issue of predators directly affect my livelihood: we have lost several chickens to hawks and foxes, baby ducks to eagles and ravens, and the Mallard drake to a fox. As for fruit trees, the bears have broken branches off the apples and the pears. Some people say, ‘Just go out and buy some more’; ‘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’; or (my personal favourite), ‘Well, you are in their territory.’ Am I really ‘in their territory?’ If so, isn’t all of the North American population? The reason we have the agricultural areas we do is because we’ve shot everything that moved there, and let them know they don’t belong here any more. It was a matter of survival and economics. After all, we all need to eat.

A right to livelihood

This is a personal economic loss. I am trying to make my living at home by what I like to call ‘direct economics’. Instead of trading my time in an office for a wage and then going to the store and buying food, I want to close that loop. Not only do I feel this is personally important to me, but I believe it is the best way I can help the planet: my food miles are very short, I don’t have to travel to work, my animals are treated decently (some would say spoiled), and I’m not polluting the water table.

Should I not have the right to own land where I chose to? To grow my own food, and make my living directly in this way?  To own fruit trees and raise chickens and turkeys instead of making a wage and having to buy them? If so, then I also need the right to push back a predator in order to protect my livelihood. If not, I will be forced to move to an already over-populated area (but an area carefully depopulated of wildlife), get a job, and be once again rendered totally dependent upon an agricultural system that is ruining the  environment (erosion, aquifer draining, desertification, water poisoning), mistreating animals, creating numerous diseases and mortal dangers for human consumers, and so on.

All is not lost

When I sat down to write this morning, I actually didn’t intend to go off the way I did above. What I had intended to write about was a bit more of a good news story and I was surprised at the turn of the tenor. Now I know first hand how a story can take a life of its own (I used to be skeptical when writers would say things like, ‘I didn’t know the story would go like this, or like that’).

Anyway, the good news is that mostly I do politick with the predators. After the cougar incident, we built more housing for the goats: by more, I mean more expensive and thus safer. In addition, I learned that when the bear comes and breaks branches on my apple tree, it is time to go pick all the apples as a preventative measure.  I have also come to several agreements with the bears. When I do harvest all the apples, I make three piles: one for fresh eating, one for preserving and one for the bears. I take the last pile out to the spot where she enters the property and dump them there. I have found that over the course of a few nights, she will come and eat them all and not bother to re-enter the property.

Also, I have several well established grape vines climbing on a pergola at the edge of the property; two green, two red. Every year a grizzly bear comes and eats the grapes. She likes the red but leaves me the green. She wrote up the contract and I signed on. To date, it is working nicely.

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