Bear Trouble on the Homestead

Reader Contribution by Steven Gregersen
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We sometimes face unusual challenges on our wilderness homestead. For example, a couple of weeks ago we received a phone call from a neighbor down the road about a mile. It seemed a grizzly bear had broken into their chicken house and killed a bunch of their turkeys. Thankfully their chickens and a few of the turkeys managed to escape but still the financial loss was significant. The bear didn’t just break through the fence and open the door, it actually ripped the siding off the chicken house. This wasn’t the first time either. Just a couple of nights before it had done the same thing to another residence about a mile on the other side of us.

The state Wildlife Department set a culvert trap that the bear tripped and rolled down the hill. Then they set snares that the bear avoided. This bear has probably been in trouble before.

Not wanting the same fate for our 84 recently purchased Cornish Cross chickens, I quickly put up an electric fence around our chicken house.

Homesteaders are used to dealing with skunks, opossums, raccoons, weasels, coyotes, bobcats and other small predators, but few ever have to deal with larger predators like mountain lions, wolves and bears.

The best way I’m aware of to keep the larger predators out is electric fencing. Wolves and mountain lions (at least in our area) tend to avoid homesteads and people, but bears are a different story. Bears have excellent memories and once they become accustomed to easy pickings it’s difficult to change their behavior.

Problem bears are nothing new around here.

I shot a big black bear during bear season a few years ago. When I skinned the carcass I found that he’d been shot in the hindquarters with a shotgun. There was probably an ounce or so of #6 shot scattered about in the fat of his rear end. Most likely he’d been rummaging around someone’s chicken house looking for a free meal when the tenant discouraged him with a blast of shot.

About two years ago, I got up in the middle of the night because the dog was raising a ruckus outside of our chicken house. Just the week before I’d shot a skunk trying to get at the chickens so I assumed that’s what was going on that night. I traipsed out into the night wearing my PJ’s and house slippers and toting a single barrel 12-gauge loaded with #6 shot. I rounded the corner of the chicken house to find myself staring at 400 pounds of grizzly bear feeding on the chicken’s feed. He’d pulled the lid off the steel can, upended it and was joyously eating his way through 40 pounds of feed. He turned and ran about 10 feet then stopped to look me over. The shotgun was pointed at him but I felt a bit under gunned with a single shot shotgun loaded with bird shot. Thankfully he continued on down the trail and out of sight.

Had I been more alert I’d have noted that the dog was barking from the other side of the trail instead of at the chicken house as she normally does. That should have told me something but it was midnight and I wasn’t fully alert at the time.

I cleaned up as much of the mess as I could and moved the chicken feed to a locked shed the next morning. Then I set up a game camera. I knew he’d be back again and I wanted some pictures.

I was lucky that night. A friend just outside of Fortine faced a similar situation a few years ago. He was armed with a .410 shotgun. When he investigated late-night noises from his chicken house, he came face to face with a sow grizzly. When nearing the chicken house, two bear cubs shot out of the open door. When the sow emerged from the chicken house with a chicken in her mouth, she immediately charged, he shot by reflex and one or more pellets penetrated through her nasal cavity and into her brain, dropping her instantly. It was ruled justifiable and no charges were filed. You can find the story by typing “beeman, fortine, grizzly” into any search engine.

We’ve both changed the way we check out night-time noises. We now carry pump shotguns loaded with slugs or buckshot and pay a lot more attention to what our dogs are doing.

Percentage wise, not many homesteaders are going to have to deal with grizzlies in their backyard but bear numbers (polar, grizzly, and black bears) are increasing and black bears have greatly expanded their range in recent years. Some states have seen a remarkable growth in bear populations and with more bears there will be more bear problems.

Black bears are not usually as aggressive as grizzlies but they, too, like free food. If you live in bear country you might want to put an electric fence around your chicken house or other places bears like to dine. Keep the chicken food, dog food, etc., in secure buildings where wildlife can’t get to them. (There have been dogs killed by bears while the bear was trying to get to the dog’s food: our dog’s collar is intentionally loose so that she can back out of it if she’s tied or it gets hung up on something and she needs to escape.)

Preventive measures will not only save the chickens, it may save the bear as well. Once bears get in the habit of raiding chicken coops, it’s very difficult to stop them. Most will end up being euthanized. In these cases an ounce of prevention is far better for both you and the bear.

We received word yesterday that “our” griz appears to have moved on to new territory. I have no doubt though that he will be back. At least for the foreseeable future the electric fence will remain in place.

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