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.