Tag Archives: Politicking with predators

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 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

A time to kill

I shot my first live animal yesterday, and I was not on a hunt. I caught a young red fox trying to dig his way in to my turkey pen. This was the same little fellow that had been prowling around my place every night for several weeks now, keeping me awake thanks to the vigilance of my dog. I’d seen him on several of his mid-night ramblings but not bothered to try to shoot him; I just let Tui (our dog) out to take care of him, and she was enough to chase him off.

Yesterday, however, was a different story. He showed up around 3:00 in the afternoon, give or take. I’d just sat down for coffee with my husband, when we noticed the turkeys’ sudden agitation at something. They were ringing their alarm bells, pressing themselves up against the near fence-line and generally making it well known they were not happy about being captive.

My husband ran towards the turkey pen and shouted that he’d spotted the fox. Upon hearing the word ‘fox’, I leaped into action and ran to the house to get my gun (a Ruger .22 semi-automatic). When I returned and closed in on the turkey pen, the little fox was still trying to dig his way in and wasn’t at all alarmed by my presence: not something you want in a wild animal. I took aim through the fence. Once he felt my presence, he stopped digging, sat down, and looked at me, unblinking.

Admittedly, he was a cute little thing, so I paused to consider what I was about to do.  Should I shoot him? Should I let him go on his way? He’s so cute, can I really do this? But I knew I had to shoot him now. He would be back, and if bad luck would have it, it would be when I’m not home to deal with him. It was a case of killing a fox to save my turkeys: my animals, my livelihood, my food security. Typically, you know when a fox has been in the chicken house because they kill everyone in there. It is not enough for a fox to kill just one chicken or turkey and leave, like an eagle or a hawk. It is the signature of a fox to kill everyone, and I could not risk losing my turkeys to him.

After considering all this, again I took aim. I was about to shoot when I realized the shot I had was not a good option. There were two layers of cross-wire fencing to shoot through, so it could end up in disaster. The bullet could hit a wire, ricochet and miss him all together, or worse–hit one of my turkeys. I decided I would risk letting him escape this time, and tried to get a better shot.

While I was repositioning myself, he went around the barn and behind the paddock fence-line. I ran around the other side of the paddock and into it, so I could take aim through the fence and not have it in my way. Meanwhile, he took off to the other side of the slough.

Once across to what he thought was safety, he sat at the base of a tree and, again, turned and looked back at me. Yes, he was cute. Yes he was a young one–probably only a year old. He had such a sweet face, I almost lost my nerve. Again I took pause for a brief moment, but ultimately mustered up the courage to shoot: he would just be back if I let him go. I hit him in the chest and he barreled over backwards, recovered his footing, and took off at a lope.

Now came the really difficult part: I had to try to find my way across the slough (not an easy task) and then track him through extremely dense bush. I got my dog and my husband rounded up to help with the job. We found the blood trail and followed it, but it was rough going. The undergrowth here is full of brambles and –worse–Devil’s Club, which can take out an eye if you are not careful.

I now know that following a blood trail sounds easier than it actually is. I had never done it until yesterday. It was not easy–even with the dog trying to lead the way. We got caught up for far too long trying to get across the slough and even longer trying to get through the dense brush. Finally, we got through the bush and came out on my neighbour’s driveway. We followed the blood trail along the driveway, through the back of my neighbour’s garden, and finally out in to the field that he’d crossed and into the deep forest at the edge of the field.

He’d obviously come to the farm along a similar path, and so, once in the field, the dog got confused and we lost more time–tracking him back and forth along the two paths, coming and going. Eventually, we passed a patch where he’d urinated on his way to my farm. I knew it had to be on his way to the farm and not his return route because the urine was still wet. Not only that: when we finally picked up the blood trail again, it was along a slightly different path. We backtracked along the blood trail and followed it to where he crossed another slough and continued deeper into the forest.

It was not long after this point that I decided to give up. The dog was beginning to look uneasy, the light was going, the rain was coming, and, having passed two fresh piles of fresh bear poop, I figured that being in this dense forest with nothing more than a .22 was not wise. If the dog was nervous walking in the footprints of a bear, so should I be.

I felt bad for not being able to make sure I’d finished him off. There is no doubt in my mind that he will bleed to death, but I would have liked to have finished the job myself. The downside of this is that he’s out there suffering; yet there was and is nothing more I could do. To have continued to track him that late in the day, and with such fresh bear sign around, would have been dangerous. Furthermore, it has rained hard overnight so the trail of blood and scent will be gone today.

The upside of this event, however, is twofold: he won’t be back, and last night I got my first whole undisturbed night’s sleep in weeks.

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Filed under Animal issues, Food Security, Politicking with predators, Turkeys