If you live in the mountains long enough, you will eventually have a bear story to tell. Despite pressure from hunting and encroachment by human development, bears continue to survive, and some would say thrive in our mountains.
Bears are built for survival. They are powerful and agile omnivores. They have better eyesight than humans, excellent night vision and a phenomenal sense of smell. In fact, they can smell your bird feeder from miles away (a polar bear can smell a whale carcass from 20 miles). A bear’s sense of smell is 2100 times more sensitive than yours. When they track that smell down, they can rip apart anything from a tree stump to your garbage can, although our bears usually carry away the entire container and carefully unpack it so they can explore its delicacies at their leisure.
I wrote “our” bears in the previous paragraph because we do have a certain feeling of kinship with our ursine neighbors. They are the original inhabitants of these mountains while we are merely interlopers. We do not hunt bears, or allow them to be hunted on “our” land.
Over the years, we have collected many bear stories and added them to the tales of our ancestors. One of my personal favorites is about the time when a bear borrowed our garbage can and distributed its contents across a thicket of mountain laurel. I spent nearly two hours picking up the disjecta membra of a 30 gallon container when I saw, illuminated by a single shaft of sunlight, my favorite old t-shirt hanging from a twig. My wife swears that she has no idea how that bear picked our lock, crept into the bedroom and removed that shirt from the bottom of the dresser without waking anyone up.
A few nights ago we added another bear story to the record. It was midnight on the night of the Blood Moon and the closest approach of Mars in 15 years. My wife and I and our two 100 pound pups walked out in the driveway with our flashlights, looking for the best view of the night sky.
At the side of our parking area there is an old wild cherry tree where we have suspended a bird feeder from a pulley in an attempt to put it out of reach of our friendly neighborhood bear. Our eyes were just beginning to adjust to the dark. We were about 10 feet from the cherry tree when we heard something move – above us in that tree.
As our flashlights flailed, we caught sight of a 200+ pound bear as she dived out of the tree and landed about 15 feet below, too close for anyone’s comfort. I think she was just as surprised as we were and she took off like a rocket strapped to a bulldozer. When she was a safe distance ahead, our barking dogs, exchanging valor for discretion, took off after her.
I don’t follow such things, but a friend who does told me that Mercury was retrograde that night. That’s supposed to mean that plans can come undone. I think our bear would agree. Surprised, frightened and distracted by dogs, she ran straight for the fence around our garden. The electric fence. When she hit the half inch rebar supporting the fence, it bent like a pipe cleaner, but the wire held and the fence delivered its charge.
The dogs barked. The humans yelled. The bear lurched and rolled in a tangle on the ground until she freed herself from the stinging wire. She ran across the end of the garden – right into the electric fence on the other side.
Now our dogs know all about electric fences, having discovered long ago that touching (and in particular, urinating on) a charged wire is something to be avoided, so discretion once again superseded valor and they ran back to us, giving Ursula the Bear a chance to free herself from that diabolical wire. She jumped over the creek and disappeared over the mountain. I’ve never seen nor imagined anything climbing our mountain that fast, but I imagine she spent the rest of the night calculating the risk versus reward ratio of a teacup of sunflower seeds.
We love our bears, but we also respect them. They are not to be trifled with, and in some situations they can be quite dangerous. But with proper care and caution, a bear can be a better neighbor than many humans we know.
We don’t tempt our bears or set them up for failure. Organic refuse goes into the compost pile or an inside container, and if it won’t compost, it goes into the freezer until we go to the transfer station. The compost pile is some distance from the house and the bear is quite adept at helping us keep it turned. Nothing but inorganic trash goes into the outside garbage can.
We never, ever leave the cat or dog food bowls outside at night or when we leave the property. Since bears are adept tree-climbers, any and all bird feeders are placed beyond any possibility of being reached by a grasping paw.
As you may have gathered from this story, an electric fence is very effective in discouraging a bear. Bears are quite fond of corn and pumpkins, but our garden has been unmolested since we installed the fence. A bear will shred a beehive and eat bees and honey, but a welded wire fence surrounded by an electric one has protected our bees for years – and for years the bear has dug up and eaten every yellow jacket nest in the meadow.
We hear stories of people who are frightened by bears doing what bears do. They shoot them, poison them or demand that “someone do something about” them. In all honesty, we prefer to have a bear as a neighbor than to live near such a person. As Rudyard Kipling said in The Jungle Book: “Now, don’t be angry after you’ve been afraid. That’s the worst kind of cowardice.”