When the bear comes too close to home

 

It's always seemed like a good idea to have chickens, especially if you live in a rural area. They turn compost into eggs. In the fall, they fill the freezer full of healthy meat at a reasonable price. They provide feathers for my dad's fly-tying and my daughter's hair. They eat the grasshoppers and fertilize the trees, and they allow my daughter and I to spend time together gathering eggs, butchering chickens, talking about individual bird tendencies, and counting the days until the next batch of chicks might hatch. Raising chickens is fun, or at least I used to think so.

Until I heard the chickens screaming one night and walked out expecting the normal coyote or skunk. Instead, my flashlight beam picked up a black bear's two bright eyes. I backed up a step and picked up some rocks. Eventually, the bear moved off, leaving behind a hole through the chicken wire and one chicken without a tail. But the next morning the bear was back, and I ran it off again. That afternoon when I returned from town, more chicken wire was down, and two more chickens had become a snack for the bear.

Then my neighbors had 20 chickens killed in one night. They called me and expressed anger and fear and a strong desire to "terminate that bear." I understood, but argued that perhaps bears were more important than chickens. After all, we'd chosen to live up high in the piñon-junipers outside of town because of the wildness. I liked having bears around. And who could blame them, really, for going after chickens? Were we really willing to kill all the bears -- and the mountain lions, too -- just to keep our chickens?

My neighbor and I compromised, and he called the Colorado state Division of Wildlife; maybe they could trap this bear and move it somewhere else.

Then that night at 3 a.m., I heard the chickens again. I grabbed a flashlight and ran out in my boxers and heard the bear rummaging in the pen. I made loud noises until I heard the bear crash away through the bushes.

I went into the pen to inspect the damage and was looking at the remains of my daughter's favorite hen when the rooster started making noise again. My flashlight beam rose up and I saw -- fur. My flashlight beam rose higher and there was the bear again, standing on its hind legs and reaching for roosting chickens.

I could almost touch it. I yelled. I shook the pen. The bear came closer. I held one side of the chicken pen door closed against me, while the bear pushed against the other side. I was losing. Adrenaline kicked in, and I opened the door suddenly, yelled, and hit the bear on the head with my flashlight. It looked startled and moved away, creating enough space for me to grab a shovel and chase it into the woods. Then I went back into the house, shaking with fear.

The next morning I called the Division of Wildlife and explained that this particular bear was clearly no longer afraid of humans. If something wasn't done, I said, somebody might get hurt.

Based on what I told them, the wildlife staffers recommended shooting the bear, calling in a hunter with dogs. And I began to question whether it was still the right thing to have chickens. Building a bear-proof chicken coop would not be easy, and keeping chickens inside the coop all day was not desirable.

But until my neighbors and I bear-proofed our pens, the bears would keep nabbing chickens, making themselves vulnerable as problem bears that had to be killed. I suddenly had much more sympathy for ranchers who shot wolves and orchard owners whose 8-foot fences not only kept the elk from their trees but blocked them and all other wildlife from their former winter haunts by the river.

It was clear to me that protecting wildlife is wonderful in the abstract, but once a predator moves in to where you live, the urge to protect yourself, your children and your home becomes paramount.

Now I understood why, in the pioneer days when most people had chickens and maybe a cow or two, we nearly wiped wolves and bears off the face of the earth. Could the modern-day trend of growing gardens and having chickens in the backyard lead to the same situation again? I certainly didn't want that to happen, but neither did I want to buy factory eggs and apples shipped from China.

In the next week, I heard that at least six other people in the area lost chickens to invading bears. Multiple bears seemed to be at fault, and multiple people called state wildlife officers to do something.

As for me, I'm working on a bear-proof chicken coop and still trying to figure out if that is the right thing to do.

Dev Carey is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He runs an environmental nonprofit in Paonia, Colorado.

Scott Schlossberg
Scott Schlossberg Subscriber
Nov 09, 2011 08:51 AM
"once a predator moves in to where you live, the urge to protect yourself, your children and your home becomes paramount"

Let's be clear here: the bear did not move in to where you live. You moved to where the bear lives. If this bear is killed, it will be because you (and your neighbors) decided you want to live "up high in the pinon-junipers outside of town." The "right thing to do" would have been to live in a developed area and let the bears have the hills to roam.
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell Subscriber
Nov 09, 2011 09:05 AM
I'd suggest talking to the CDW again. Probably their suggestion is best, they are the experts. Bears that have learned to associate humans with food will continue to be a problem. Bears unfamiliar with human sources of food will make better neighbors, and there will always be plenty more bears where they came from. If anyone is a licensed hunter the season has 5 more days to run assuming there are leftover tags in the Paonia area. If not the CDW might well issue you a special depredation tag. Also be aware that by law all the meat must be salvaged and either eaten or donated to someone who will eat it.

Realize too people in your area have been eating black bear for ten thousand years or more, call yourself an environmental traditionalist.
Christine Paige
Christine Paige Subscriber
Nov 11, 2011 04:57 PM
It seems to be an uphill battle to educate homeowners on securing bear attractants, yet no one would consider leaving your doors unlocked in the middle of a city, would they? A simple electric fence can secure a chicken coop, orchard or feed shed from a bear, and everything else--garbage, pet food, etc. should be stored in bear-proof canisters or buildings. Contact CDW for tips on bear-proofing your home--it is we humans that turn bears into "problem" bears. Bears think with their stomachs, but we can use our brains to secure attractants and live peacefully with wildlife. To download a brochure on electric fence specifications to deter bears, see Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks' web page on bear awareness here:
http://fwp.mt.gov/[…]/bearAwareTools.html
Christopher Howard
Christopher Howard Subscriber
Nov 15, 2011 11:09 PM
Sorry, Dev. You have chickens in bear territory. I am starting to tire of the new environmental ethic, which seems to be "I have money and a love of the land, so I will live where I want." Don't raise chickens or don' t live in bear country.
Sharon Karpinski
Sharon Karpinski Subscriber
Nov 16, 2011 01:31 PM
Electric fences work---sometimes, if they are turned up high enough. Bears' thick fur mitigates the contact with the wire.

If you cook personally use the bear meat after you shoot the miscreant, then cook it thoroughly. Bears, like garbage-fed pigs, can carry trichinosis. It's pretty "gamey" meat but makes real good chile, mincemeat, or pot roast if hung.
Christine Paige
Christine Paige Subscriber
Nov 16, 2011 02:10 PM
The joule rating is crucial for an effective electric fence to deter grizzlies and black bears: the energizer must have a minimum joule rating of 0.7 or greater and deliver 6,000 volts or more. Be sure the energizer is adequate to deliver power over the entire distance you need.
Deborah Sparrow
Deborah Sparrow Subscriber
Nov 16, 2011 02:36 PM
There are other options. Maybe we get out of this idea that each of us must grow every darn thing and do what makes sense in the locale we live in. Lots of places are free of bears. How about we support chicken and egg farming from places like that? The people who grow food don't have to live by wilderness areas, in national forests and the like. When we remove predators the browsing critters population grows and then a reasonable accommodation between gardeners and critters becomes impossible. Maybe we need those predators.
Maybe we need to reconsider how we handle trash, too. Meaty trash and the like can be separated from compostable and other trash. I remember a time when it was collected separately and was kept in a metal container buried in the ground until collection. This made our trash barrels much less attractive to critters. Sure, once a predator looses fear of humans, shooting becomes reasonable but maybe we would gain something by reconsidering how appropriate particular farming practices are in particular locales.
Loosing predators historically has increased population of browing animals with very painful results for forest health, gardens and traffic accidents.
Jesse Tigner
Jesse Tigner
Nov 21, 2011 07:42 PM
That’s quite a story about being in a shoving match with that bear. I’ll bet it looked stunned when you conked it on the head with a flashlight—that’s hilarious. The silver lining may be that bears are pretty tasty critters. Awful as steaks and such, but fantastic as ground – there’s no burger like a bear burger.
Robert Bunch
Robert Bunch Subscriber
Nov 22, 2011 07:24 AM
You moved into bear country. If you don't want them getting after your chickens move to the city.
Sharon Karpinski
Sharon Karpinski Subscriber
Nov 23, 2011 11:25 AM
Re: chickens in predator territory. There was a great book, written years ago, about raising chickens outside of Austin, TX, where the coyotes roam and the wild pigs like poultry too. The writer had tried many times with chickens but they always got picked off by the local meateaters until his neighbor went out of the cockfighting business. The neighbor sold his fighting stock but gave his hens to our protagonist. He commented that the girls would take on anything up to rattlesnake size on the ground. If something larger came along, they'd fly into the trees where they also roosted every night. He said that they didn't lay many eggs and sometimes those eggs were hard to find but they were still tasty. He didn't lose a single adult bird. Worth considering??