Tag Archives: Grizzly Bears

Bears and fruit trees – part 5

The solution:

“Lasting success requires both HUMANS and BEARS to change their behaviors otherwise bears will continually get into trouble”

Southwest Alberta Bear Management Program

I began this series because of a discussion the British Columbia Food Security Network was having about how to make bears and fruit trees get along. Members in Powell River, BC were being told by their local Ministry of Environment Conservation Officers to cut down their fruit trees and then being threatened with fines if they did not comply. As a farmer, a food provisioner, and someone who is passionate about food security and community development, I was concerned by this attitude of the regional Conservation Officers. Because it is not policy (yet) on the Ministry of Environment’s site, it makes me wonder why these COs are suggesting this as a reasonable solution to the human-bear conflict. I believe it is because they are convinced by some of the myths I have outlined in previous articles (see part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4 of the series), in particular, the theory that humans can control bear behaviour if we remove all the attractants, which is simply not true. Furthermore, it is a ridiculous fantasy that we can live ‘in harmony’ with wildlife. As one Bear Smart BC program coordinator told me during an interview, “Living with large predators has its limitations and we can’t expect people to ignore the risks associated with bear/human conflict.”

Sadly, the only outcome of these ‘animal-centric’ ideas is for humans to be held hostage to the bears which, thanks to changes in legislation in Canada, now have the backing of the Conservation Officers and, thanks to the preservationist media agenda, now have the backing of the public at large. The New Jersey example proves that the act of withdrawing is futile (see New Jersey Bear Problem); despite the mammoth efforts to control city garbage, their bear problem is worse than ever!

As the New Jersey example shows, once you have habituated bears and then remove the attractants (food, garbage, barbeques, fruit trees) outside your home, bears will enter houses, because they are accustomed to acquiring food at those locations and are no longer afraid of humans. Instead, they see human settlements as a source of food. “We don’t know exactly how long it takes for a habituated bear to become ‘human food conditioned’ but in some observations of specific bears we have estimated it took approximately 10 days,” the Bear Smart BC program coordinator told me. What is worse, they may even consider your property part of their home range territory and defend it aggressively. While not strictly territorial by nature, bears do conduct a modified form of territorial defence (what some bear behaviour experts call ‘home range’ defence), where a bear will defend access to resources such as the best salmon spawning rivers, the best berry patches, or other areas with rich sources of food (resources) and they will defend those areas aggressively. This home range defence is an important distinction in bear behaviour that has implications for our Food Security. When you develop a food secure piece of ground in bear territory, you could find yourself (or your yard/farm) being considered part of a bear’s ‘home-range’ territory. If your yard is in prime bear habitat then it is not likely that you will end up with a young, inexperienced (or marginalized) bear, but you could end up with an older, more experienced (and thus more aggressive) bear laying claim to your fruit trees. It is even likely to be a dominant female with cubs. She may not be able to hold prime river access, but because your farm/yard/trees are close to the river, she can lay claim to that habitat. In other words, you could end up with a bear that is willing to fight aggressively to keep (or take) the access to the fruit trees. Females with cubs are an even more dangerous situation because of the ‘cub-defence’ behaviour — the most common type of bear aggression towards people that results in injury. Younger or more inexperienced bears can sometimes be deterred more easily (with bear bangers, or dogs, loud noises, electric fences, and so on) but more experienced and/or determined bears (especially females with cubs) will not be so easily deterred — especially if they have had access to this food source over time. For the most part, it is the younger bears which are being forced to access people’s yards (around cities and less wild spaces) but it is certainly not always the case.

The typical bear to get into trouble with people is a sub-adult between 2 to 5 years old for Black Bears, and 3 to 5 years old for Grizzlies. Black bear cubs stay with the sow for two years and Grizzly cubs stay three years. After that they are forced to fend for themselves and at that point they become very vulnerable. Sub-adults are vulnerable to predation by other bears, cougars and wolves, so they are forced further away from their original home range territory. Sub-adult males are bolder than females and they are usually the first source of the conflict. The next ones to get up close to homes are sows with cubs. These sows approach human development for the same reasons that sub-adults do, to stay away from predators, especially dominant male bears. Because of this, they choose “safe zones” where the dominant males (as well as other predators) are less likely to be present. Drawn in by their strong sense of smell to the odours around homes, these bears explore for opportunities. Because we are no longer trapping, snaring, and shooting these intruders, these bears quickly learn that human settlements are a safe haven so they push the envelop. It is here that the trouble begins and finding a solution becomes paramount. We can categorise bears, regardless of species, in three ways.:

1. Wild – No previous experience with humans.

2. Human Wise – They know what humans are; they have seen them, smelled and heard them.

3. Habituated – These bears are accustomed to being around people and have learned not to fear them. These are by far the most dangerous kind of bear to deal with.

Wild bears and human wise bears are not problem bears, only potentially problem bears. Problem bears are habituated bears. In order to address those bears effectively, humans have to accept that we are part of the problem and change our behaviours accordingly. If we want to keep these animals alive then a mammoth effort in lifestyle change is required. Step one is to acknowledge that we are in competition with them for resources (food, land, access to food sources, waterways, etc — even if we are vegan) and step two is to act accordingly. Here are the four main ways we may minimise the human-bear conflict: 1. We can stop habituating bears to our food sources by not putting any food into garbage cans in our neighbourhoods or into community garbage dumps. Professor Stephen Herrero found villagers in Italy surrounded by mountains and bears, who, despite growing much of their own food, keeping fruit trees, and composting in they own yards, do not have bear problems. He documents his experience in the village in his book, Bear Attacks Revised: their cause and avoidance. The people in these Italian mountain communities put NO food garbage into their dumps! Not a drop. In addition, the households compost all their own food and thus the bears do not become accustomed to human waste food in the towns or at the dumps. They also defend their settlements so the bears know not to come to town and that humans are a threat.

2. We can keep bears wild by delineating preservation areas for bears where humans are not allowed to go. As a May 2010 Sierra Club Canada Media Release so rightly states, we must “… protect adequate amounts of grizzly bear habitat and restrict the number of open routes and motorized access in other places.”

3. We can make bears more human wise by defending our territory aggressively. Enter The Wind River Bear Institute and their ‘Parters-in-Life’ program. An innovative leader in this work, the Wind River Bear Institute uses non-lethal methods of reducing the human-bear conflict problems. Their goal is to teach the bears and humans how to avoid conflict. Their mission is ‘to reduce human-caused bear mortality and conflicts worldwide to ensure the continued survival of all species of bears for future generations’. When a ‘nuisance’ bear shows up, a dog trainer and team are dispatched to aggressively defend the property and/or human settlement a bear is encroaching upon. This technique is called ‘bear shepherding’: the idea behind it is to teach bears to recognize that humans have territorial boundaries and they are not welcome inside them. Of her program, Hunt says, “We have developed a system for teaching safe, meaningful lessons to bears and use a variety of loud noises, rubber projectiles and Karelian Bear Dog (KBD) Wildlife Service Dogs (WSDs) to safely ‘herd’ bears out of off-limit areas such as roadways, campgrounds, developed sites, and back country camps.” It is the aim of The Wind River Bear Institute (WRBI) to successfully ‘retrain’ the bears to recognize humans and see them as a threat to be avoided. “Because our lessons are based on wild bear behavior, the bears are taught to view us as much like a dominant bear and learn to avoid human developed sites as ‘our’ territory.” Because the technique is based in wild animal behaviour, it can be used as a template for other animals that pose human-wildlife conflict. The WRBI has also used this shepherding technique with cougars, moose, big horn sheep, and wolves. Enter the government. Our government officials could put more money into supporting programs like the Partners-in-Life, and have Conservation Officers trained to do Bear Shepherding. We could also give back land owners some power through policy changes, and allow them to defend their territory as a preventative measure. This could entail trapping, snaring, and shooting if necessary. Property owners should not have to wait until a bear is habituated to their land before something can be done. They should not have to wait until the bear has broken into their chicken shed and killed every chicken before a Conservation Officer is dispatched to ‘deal’ with the problem bear. After all, once the chickens are all dead the bear is no longer a problem!

Destroying the bears is not the only way to deal with them, but sadly, sometimes it is the only solution. Habituated bears are very difficult to discourage. A Bear Smart BC program coordinator admitted, “some bears get too possessive and aggressive around people’s homes and there is no other solution but to destroy them… As a program our first responsibility is to human safety.” He is speaking from experience not from emotion. Why not simply relocate problem bears? An article in the Journal of Wildlife Management by Blanchard and Knight (1995) states, “Because of low survival and high return rates [of relocated bears], transporting grizzly bears should be considered a final action to eliminate a conflict situation.” Many relocated bears die either by fighting with other bears in their newly relocated to territory, or by fighting with bears whose territory they have to cross in order to get back to their own home range territory. Because of the low survival rate (and the high resource use and transportation costs), bear biologist Carrie Hunt implores, “relocation and destruction must fade into history as something we do as an exception rather than the norm.”

4. We can control our population growth. We must control our population and limit our growth, period. Otherwise, there will be no space left for bears or any other wild creatures to thrive. What you ‘can’ do: Removing food sources from bears has its merits and does make a positive difference in reducing conflict. The Bear Smart BC program has been working with bear-resistant garbage can makers who have developed some successful and innovative solutions. In order for any container to received bear-resistant status it must undergo stringent testing through the Living with Wildlife with Wildlife Foundation in Wyoming.

One particular maker, Tye Dee Bins, makes metal bins that, during their test trials, no bear could get into no matter how hard they tried. Electric fencing has come a long way over recent years and installation is the key to dissuading bears from trying to reach a garden, fruit trees or even barns. Bear Smart has obtained effective electric fencing from Gallagher Fencing, a New Zealand Company which came to BC and trained the Bear Smart Program Delivery Specialists on the proper installation of their electric fencing. It is paramount that the bears do not defeat the fence when they attempt to access food. In the Kootenays, BC, Grizzlies had been attacking chicken coops and pig pens, so Bear Smart BC staff responded to complaints and erected a Gallagher electric fence. After one successful electric shot, they find that the bears get the message and never return. The down side to the electric fencing is its high cost.

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

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 three

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. The first two post of this series are, ‘How to make bears and fruit trees get along’ and ‘Bears and fruit trees, part two.’

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

False belief #3: We can live in harmony with wildlife

This belief is held by people who are insulated from the essential biological condition of all animals, including the human one. The commonalities are: people refuse to hear facts from local people who know, preferring instead to will their own believed reality into existence; people get their information from television, where reality is at one remove and often distorted by Disney-fied commentary; despite the close encounters and reports of deaths, people insist that those incidents are the exception, that the responsibility for such attacks is the humans, who were too close, too unkind, to…, or that Nature has somehow let them down, backsliding from Her normal benign ‘co-existence’ model.

In his new book The War in the Country (Vancouver: Greystone, 2009), Thomas F. Pawlick recounts an incident in Algonquin Park, Ontario, when he advised a European couple not to have their photograph taken close to some nearby black bears with its cubs. “Oh no,” said the woman, “we’ve seen bears on television lots of times, and people pet them and everything else.” Pawlick explained that not only were these wild bears, but also that one of them had cubs, which meant the mother would kill the couple on the spot. Ignoring his advice, the couple approached the bears until the mother stood up and growled, which prompted them to retreat, the woman complaining indignantly, “Well, that didn’t sound friendly.” (Pages 266-7) I have had the same experience here where I ranch.

The second commonality is deeply entrenched in our western urban psyche. From Disney to National Geographic, well-intentioned nature films, with their telescopic lenses and generally uplifting environmental commentaries, give the comfortable couch-sitter the impression that all nature, including the big animals, is there as a backdrop to uplifting or cute human encounters. Even ‘educational’ films about bear safety often feature individuals in close proximity to bears, safe only (I presume) in the knowledge that there is an array of sharpshooters just out of camera range. Whatever the unseen ‘big picture’ of these movies may be, they are irresponsible in not telling us the whole truth of their construction. Even the experts in these movies can be ill-informed, as the  sad example of Tim Treadwell (the “Grizzly Man” of the movie) and Amie Huguenard demonstrates. In the opinion of another bear expert, Kevin Sanders:

Anyone that spends as much time in the field as Tim and I have, will no doubt have had similar experiences. I remember once out at my bear viewing area sitting alone one day, and feeling a bit sleepy in the warm sun I decided to lay back and close my eyes for a moment, when I remember feeling that something was watching me. I slowly raised up and looked around, only to discover that a family of six coyotes had moved in behind me, the adult alpha’s sitting within feet of me while the pups played nearby. After a few minutes, I decided to get up and walk across the meadow, only to have the whole family follow along beside me. The only difference between Tim and I is, Tim felt that the fox were kindred spirits, whereas I knew that the coyotes were looking at me as they would any other large carnivore in the wild, and that hopefully I would lead them to food much as a bear or wolf would do. Or maybe, I was the food! …

Tim’s foolish disregard for his own safety, and over confidence dealing with bears in the past, luck really, not to mention his mistake of placing anthropomorphic values on bears, and disregarding established federal guidelines when photographing and camping with brown bears contributed to both Tim and Amie’s death. Grizzly bears are wild animals and should always be treated as such, wild and unpredictable. Not a pet, or lovable cuddly bear…. (Kevin Sanders, 2008)

The third commonality is related to the other two, in that it, too, places humans at the centre. I have often seen people going into bear areas without any defense system (knife, gun, bow), or carrying their pepper spray and clicking their rocks, every so often shouting “Yo Bear!” and secure in their belief that by intruding into bear territory openly yet adhering to the ’10 commandments’ of ‘being bear aware’ (making noise, clicking rocks, sticking to the trail, and so on) they will not really be intruding into their territory and thus will not have any deleterious encounters. “If we don’t bother them, they won’t bother us,” they are told, and so they believe. Jim West, who survived a bear attack in 70 Mile House British Columbia in 2008, by killing the bear and requiring sixty stitches on his head and body, was harassed for his actions. Gary Shelton documents several similar cases where bear attack victims were vilified by the (largely urban) public. He argues that so deeply held are people’s beliefs in our ability to intrude safely into the wild, that contrary evidence can cause psychic trauma:

Most modern young people who have careers that require working in the field have university degrees. In many universities, like the ones in British Columbia, these people often obtain a view pint about mankind and nature that is incorporated into their beliefs about life. One principle in that viewpoint is that animals attack only when people have wrongly intruded on their space, and if you obey the rules of retreat, animals will back off as they don’t really intend you any harm. In some types of bear attacks on a person with such beliefs, where the bear exhibits behavior contrary to that belief system and the person is severely injured, their psychology of belief is also injured. This may sound minor in significance, but considering that this type of person is often someone who has embraced nature pantheism, the resulting trauma can be deep, lingering, and hard to diagnose. (Bear Attacks II: Myth & Reality, Hagensborg: Pallister, 2001,  p.147)

To sum up, all three commonalities which lead to what I call ‘False belief #3: We can live in harmony with wildlife’ exhibit the human ability to deny reality in favour of a deeply held, prior belief. As Francis Bacon so wisely stated, “Man prefers to believe what he prefers to be true.”

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

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

Janey’s got a gun

Because I know next to nothing about guns, hunting or general bush safety, but was about to take a trip to Williams Lake to buy a gun, I  decided to call a friend, Gary Shelton, who happens to be an avid hunter, an ex-hunting guide, an international expert on survival techniques and bear behavior, a renowned author, and a bush safety instructor extraordinaire. Gary is an extremely engaging speaker and I love listening to him speak; my mind paints images as he guides me through the forest of his knowledge.

I asked him about guns in general, and what he thought I should get that would meet my needs. “What you’re going to need is something that will not only shoot a deer or moose, but also be a bear defense weapon,” he said, and gave me a couple of options in styles and makes that he considered suitable for my requirements.

We talked some more about safety issues, my requirements, and the types and styles of guns he recommended. One particularly helpful suggestion was that whatever I get, I should have its stock cut down to meet my diminutive size; he suggested I try out one of his guns that he had cut down for his daughter. (I would not have thought that a gun could be customized in this way.)

Then, being a natural teacher, Gary talked about things to consider when hunting in the bush with someone–all to do with safety. He told me how the landscape of hunting has shifted in the last twenty years and described to me some of the changes in the legislation with respect to hunting and culling of animals. The result of this is an increase in the numbers of bears, particularly in our area: we now have the largest population of grizzly bears anywhere in the world, right outside our doors. I know this! I see them, or evidence of them, on a daily basis.

Gary also praised the bushman skills and hunting prowess of my friend Clarence, and declared: “You and Clarence should have your bear defense strategy all worked out beforehand.” Pardon me, but did you say beforehand? As if the need for a bear defense strategy is part of a lunch list: like, don’t forget your sandwich, cookies, and to take with you some water. Oh, and remember to bring along your bear defense strategy–you won’t want to be without that, if you get hungry.

“The landscape of hunting has changed here in the last twenty years,” Gary reminded me. “Because of the sheer increase in bear population, your chances of running into one have also increased significantly. Not only that: there are far more of them who are no longer afraid of humans.”

I asked him what the ‘bear defense strategy’ should look like and almost regretted it immediately: one  of you should be the lead (this should be the more experienced person), while the less experienced person should be prepared to follow the lead person’s direction. The back-up person is exactly  that: the back-up, ready to follow the lead person’s orders.

In a bear encounter, the second person should move 90 degrees to one side of the lead person (about 6 or 7 feet), so if the need to shoot is determined, neither of you are in the other’s line of sight. The lead person will make the call if there is a need to shoot, when to shoot, and if and when the back-up person should chamber a round. In other words, the lead person will gallantly step aside, calmly watch the horror unfold, and after a quiet but complex calculation say, ‘When.’ Meanwhile, the other person has ‘moved into position’, ‘squared off with the bear’ and is poised to shoot, waiting only for the signal. Oh, and if necessary, shoot well, for the love of god, and accurately–the last thing you want on your hands is a wounded, and therefore even more angry, bear.

It is important that your plan is discussed before going into the woods. It is of no use to start the discussions once the bear encounter situation has begun. The lead person will make the decision as to whether or not there is a need for defense and be making this decision based on the behaviour of the bear. This is very important, because there will be bear encounter situations that never require anyone to shoot the bear.

Of course, each situation will be different, and just because you have a plan does not mean the event will unfold precisely how you imagine it. The above description is of course, the ideal (if you can call a bear defense situation, ideal). However, there may be a situation where you cannot move to the side. In this case, the back-up person will not chamber a round. Under no circumstances should the back-up person (or anyone standing behind another) chamber a round–that is simply too dangerous.

Oh. My. God. These are not things I had considered when I committed myself to learning to hunt, or when I wrote my first happy little post by that name. Nor were they things Clarence had ever talked to me about, not even when out on our first hunt together. Then, I had presumed that if we came across a bear, or any dicey situation for that matter, it would be Clarence’s job to deal with it. My job would be to try not to pee myself, faint, or become hysterical and run rough-shod across the forest, prompting a merry little chase in which the bear would, no doubt, participate lustily.

“So,” I asked Gary, not sure I wanted to hear the answer, “will the gun you recommend be sufficient for this?” He listed the various merits of the guns he was recommending, and why. As politely as possible, I pressed him for a more precise answer: “Well [for the love of God!], which of the ones you have suggested is better for the ‘bear defense situation’, then?”

“Let me put it this way,” Gary said matter-of-factly. “When a bear defense situation goes down, you’re going to wish you both had Bazookas.”

Mental note to self, talk to Clarence!

In the end, I decided upon a Remington 700 series .280 rifle. Last night, Gary ‘pre-approved’ my rifle. What is more, he told me a whole bunch more about the rifle and listed off various merits not even the gun store salesmen revealed. All together, I did even better than I had thought. Now, I’m equipped to go hunting–and will be off for the next week or so!

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Filed under Animal issues, Funny stories, Hunting, Politicking with predators

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