Homesteading where the world is still wild comes with many challenges. When the obstacles are overcome, though, we see the reasons we work at it: self-reliance, stability, safekeeping and more. The predators that are just a notch or two lower on the food chain than humans will forever search for a piece of the simple man’s pie, and the homesteaders who are able to protect that pie will see the highest rates of return.
Bears are among the worthiest contenders with which a homesteader will ever share the land. Stripped down to the tools and skills we naturally possess, man is no match for a big bear. Our advantage is that we understand this fact. So, we adapt.
Some say that adaptation should come in the form of packed bags and uprooting a family’s foundation. Those of us who are committed to this lifestyle simply can’t accept that. Others say the solution rests on the end of a smoking barrel of a pump-action 12-gauge. That may be true if a bear becomes habitually aggressive. The best option, however, is to learn to live with the bears, not fight against them. Most importantly, we must not live in fear of them.
Bear-proofing a homestead is about eliminating the temptations that would lead a bear to encroach on your property. Bears are naturally curious animals with a keen sense of smell. What you thought was a harmless batch of blackberry brambles might just be an afternoon snack to a hungry bear. What you considered a lazy July afternoon with beer and a barbecue could be cause for a bear to come looking for some midnight grub. By eliminating their triggers, we can eliminate negative encounters.
Put grills away. A grill that just finished smoking thick slabs of salmon is a trigger that might be easy to overlook. Bears can smell that juicy beef steak you’re grilling to medium-rare, and they’ll start moving in your direction before the marinated backstraps hit the table. The drippings from a butterflied chicken will give any bear in the area a good reason to crash the party. When the oak smoke is done rolling and the coals have cooled off, the grill must be put away. Not doing so is asking for it to be tipped over and licked clean by morning.
Store bird feeders. Homesteaders in the heart of bear country must come to the realization that bird feeders aren’t an option, unless you’re willing to bring them in each night. Bird seed is full of fat and protein, and during the early spring and late fall months, fat and protein is exactly what a bear needs to survive.
When a big bruiser awakens from his deep winter slumber, the smell of a freshly filled bird feeder is one that he will not ignore. When summer breeding is finished, and the bears begin fattening up for the coming cold months, nutritious bird feed is exactly the type of fare they’re after. Bird feed will turn into bear feed in a hurry if it’s not protected or put away properly.
Pick up trash. Trash bags and cans left out are almost as attractive to bears as seasoned grill grates and a bird box full of nuts and seeds. A trash bag sitting outside overnight is actually an open invitation for critters of all kinds. If trash bags are stored in a barn, shed or locked bin, however, bears won’t have any reason to RSVP.
Given their curious nature, bears will still come snooping, even if they don’t smell anything good to eat. My family found this to be true one summer night last year.
The homestead was locked down tight, with not a scrap of food left out. We had even raked the chicken park free of the kitchen scraps the birds had left behind. We awoke at 2 a.m. to the sound of our front porch furniture being rearranged right outside the open bedroom window. The wicker chairs were sliding across the deck boards, and the Adirondack chairs were bumping into the side of the house.
I crawled out of bed and immediately went into protector mode. I grabbed a nearby shotgun and reached for a box of shells. In my startled state, I dropped the box of shells, spooking the intruders off the porch. When I looked out the kitchen window, the barn’s motion light flicked on and revealed what I figured to be a 350-pound black bear looking back at me. He took off into the woods, but not without leaving his tracks in the fresh fill-sand that had just been stirred up the day before when we buried the hot water supply lines for our outdoor wood burner.
The tracks told me that three bears were on the porch that night. Their ability to sense something new and different in the area had compelled them to investigate. It was apparent that the fresh fill-sand was what brought them meandering about our yard.
Weighing your options
Living in the heart of a northern Michigan state forest, my family has a lot of critters to live with. The reality is, not every trigger that inspires a bear to visit a homestead can be eliminated. Some of the things that attract them — for example, food gardens — are in place purposefully to feed our families. Sweet corn is one of the smelliest staples a homesteader can plant, and a nice-sized patch of it would go a long way in helping a bear to fatten up during harvest season.
I’ve found that the best deterrent to keep bears out of the garden has been electricity. I’ve employed a couple joules of juice to protect my flock of backyard chickens as well. One zap on the nose generally sends a bear in the other direction in a hurry. Constructing an electric fence is a one-time investment that pays off for years to come.
This simple system has kept pests from pecking away at our produce. We planted cedar posts around the garden’s perimeter and stretched 3-foot welded wire fencing with 2-by-4-inch squares all the way around. Above the fencing lives the first hot wire. There’s another hot wire at 4 inches, and another at 5 inches.
This has successfully kept everything from raccoons to deer to black bears out of the garden. I know for a fact it’s been put to the test. There’s too much at stake for the black bears to ignore the smell of ripe sweet corn. It has held up though, as our pantry shelves are full while the critters have been forced to find their sustenance elsewhere.
Beekeeping is another popular pastime among homesteaders. Of course, bees produce the sweetest treat of all: honey. Although electricity may prove to be effective for protecting hives, the temptation to get a taste may be too great for some problem bears. Surrounding the hives with plywood or OSB boards that have nails driven through from the underside provides the extra insurance beekeepers need. If a zap on the nose isn’t enough to turn a bear away, a foot full of nails certainly will be.
Big dogs on patrol provide a lot of protection, too. Oftentimes, bears will associate the smell of dogs with hunters.
These homestead pets spend their days marking their territory all throughout the property. A good dog or two will alert the bear that he’s ventured too far onto human territory, and will also alert the homesteader that there’s a creature afoot.
As homesteaders, we use what we can from the land that surrounds us. This involves hunting and foraging for wild edibles. Of course, much of the wild berries and other fruit we go after in the summer months are sought by bears, too. The only thing worse than coming face to face with a bear in the woods is coming face to face with a startled bear. Make noise while you’re out walking. Whistle while you pick berries. Chances are, any bear in the area will sense your presence and take off before you would have known they were there.
In the event that you encounter a bear that just won’t back down, a sidearm comes in handy. It’s best to not be naïve about the critters with which we share the woods. If it makes sense to pack a little something extra before going on a hike, do so, as long as you’re within legal means.
You can achieve a harmonious existence with bears around your homestead. If you meet a bear on its level, with the skills it was naturally given, the bear wins every time, but if you can capitalize on the animal’s weaknesses, it is no match for humans. The best way to live with bears, instead of against or in fear of them, is to eliminate their reasons to trespass — and protect against those you can’t eliminate.
Read more: In the Wild: North American Bears.
Brandon Hodgins lives in northern Michigan with his wife, Becky, and 3-year-old daughter, Bella. Together, they seek self-sufficiency on their 10-acre homestead by growing, hunting and preserving much of their own food.