Where is the fake news when you really need it? My daughter in Boston was the first to inform me that WMUR TV in Manchester, New Hampshire, recently reported on a Tamworth man who shot three bear cubs for “going after his chickens and beehives for several days… State law allows someone to kill wild animals on their property that are damaging crops, poultry or domestic animals.”
I have friends that shoot bears in the name of agricultural defense, though none of them are responsible for this latest shooting. Friends, like bears, are important to me, and I’d rather not trade one for the other since both can sometimes seem elusive. It boils down to simply hoping that your friends can handle your honesty without absorbing it as harsh judgement, and sometimes that honesty gets released with a few too many sharp edges. The older we get, the more skilled we become at sanding those edges just before impact.
We are all wired so differently. I cannot imagine shooting a bear, yet I have bees, chickens, cattle, and apple trees. So far, after nearly 20 years of farming, I have not suffered any serious loss to bears. They’ve eaten some apples and, last spring, tore the door off the chicken coop and killed some laying hens. We had just left town the day before to attend our son and daughter’s college graduation, and friends were doing the chores but not living at the farm. The bears had good reconnaissance and I admire their stealth. They were only trying to create an opportunity for another good day on planet Earth, just like you and me.
I do not make much of my living from apples, chickens, or bees, and therefore would never consider it a capital offense when a bear comes knocking. Perhaps an attack on my main income, the cows or calves, would elicit a response as yet unknown to me, but I have always tried to frustrate and outsmart the bears. I always bring newborn calves in the barn, and I always allow my cows to grow their horns for self-defense. This can backfire, and I have been injured a couple of times, but I sleep much better knowing my half-ton cows have the head-gear to tell a bear or coyote to choose something else on the menu.
A powerful electric fence usually (but not always) does the trick around bees, chickens, and apple trees, and do not forget the value of an extroverted dog like ours that loves to talk.
From the standpoint of firepower, I have what it takes to kill a bear. My Winchester 45-70 has bullets the size of cigars which offer a fierce recoil when fired, but the only thing I have ever killed with it is my shoulder. I showed the bullets once to a bear in our apple trees, and he climbed down and left. He returned that night and I fired a warning shot over his head to scare him off. Instead, our old 400 pound pig, Lucy, bolted from her pasture and spent a day or two jogging around greater Tamworth. She arrived home exhausted with considerably less bacon on her bones. The bear was fat and happy, dropping apple pies throughout the pasture.
The only time I was ever threatened by a black bear, I resolved the situation with four-letter words and a handful of rocks, not a rifle. Amy and I were deep in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area wilderness in northern Minnesota, and one morning just as we had finished breaking camp, a big sow with three cubs came sauntering into camp. Immediately the sow sent her cubs up three different trees, and Amy wisely ran for the canoe. I, on the other hand, stayed with our heavy packs which contained our food, and the bear and I sized each other up from 50 feet. What happened next I had learned about while earning a bachelor of science degree in wildlife biology in Wisconsin. She suddenly charged me and hit the brakes at around 10 feet, close enough where each of us could tell if the other had recently flossed.
It was a bluff charge meant to scare me from the food, and I stood my ground only because I was too afraid to do anything else. This was a long long way from campus life. She slowly retreated, and I think that bluff charge was a masters and PhD all rolled into one.
Then she came at me again, and this time I remembered the advice of a backcountry ranger, and I threw a handful of rocks and hurled some primal language. It worked, and I actually advanced on her with more rocks and more insults regarding her grocery shopping habits. She and her cubs retreated out of camp and, of course, so did I.
That sow cut me some slack. Evolution had groomed every one of her cells to know that each conflict has a cost, and you’d better be pretty good at accounting. In a crowded world where humans continue to encroach on wild, forested land, black bears will continue to come knocking. I hope we respond with the finest, most creative and compassionate bluff charge that humanity can muster, and then remember to cut them a little slack.