Saturday, November 15, 2014

A Bear Family Moves Into the Yard - What to Do?

Cub in birch tree
photo from back porch
Two weeks ago, while playing backgammon after dinner, my husband noticed some dark movement through the window. “Bear!” he announced. He ran to the back window and I to the side. “Wow, it's a big one,” he observed. But through my window, I saw a cub. Oh-oh. One of the most dangerous combinations is a sow feeding and defending a cub, and in this case, she had three of them, each the size and bulk of a small sheepdog.

This black bear family was disconcerting for other reasons, too, namely the sow's seeming familiarity with cabins and her absolute fearlessness around us.

For example, we immediately started banging on the windows and shouting to discourage
Sow at kitchen window
"What - you want a piece of me?"
their presence. Undeterred, she climbed up onto our back porch, bumping our door in the process, stood up and looked in the window, eye level to me ( I am 5' 9"), with a look that I interpreted as, “What - you want a piece of me, punk?” Then, she deftly swiped a small plastic container off a shelf (in which I had the day's coffee grounds and egg shells intended for my garden) tossing it to the cubs who rummaged through the debris.

Bears are usually quiet, wary creatures.  A whole family in our yard, in daylight, is not a good sign. We wanted to encourage them to go elsewhere.  While they were distracted by the egg shells and coffee grounds next to the back porch, Bryan moved to the front door for a can of bear spray. We knew, from prior practice, that the spray reaches only about 20 feet – a closeness we did not intend to attempt, since bears can run 30 mph over short distances and moms can be especially prickly. Nonetheless, he sprayed, to saturate the air with the noxious fumes. The sound or scent caused the sow to turn and walk INTO the spray. When the pepper fumes irritated her eyes and nose, she
Two cubs climb spruce by outhouse
trotted away, giving an alert to the cubs who nimbly climbed the adjacent spruce trees for safety. In less than a minute, though, she turned around, walked THROUGH the spray, past Bryan, and toward our ducks, who were standing by the lake shore, squawking in alarm this whole time. They were able to glide off into the water to evade her, but alas, one of our hens had followed them, and was cowering behind some ferns. The bear spied her, dashed into the foliage and made off into the woods with her limp body clenched between sharp teeth. Two of the cubs followed into the alder thicket, but the third had found a duck's nest beneath a birch tree and was devouring the eggs. More willing to get close to a young one, I sprayed it with bear spray, so it ran off, too.

Because they had eaten the chicken and the eggs, we knew we were in trouble now. The general wisdom in Alaska is that “a fed bear is a dead bear” because they can become acclimated to human sources of food, like dumpsters at campgrounds, and will then linger, hoping for more. But it is poor form to shoot a sow that has cubs, and poor form to shoot cubs, too, so we were stymied as to what to do. In the meantime, we stockpiled our cans of bear spray and noisemakers.

The next day, we didn't see any of the bears, but we kept the poultry locked in their coop just in case and used the time to remove from the property any attractions we had overlooked. We hunted for duck eggs in the yard, and dumped into the lake any that we found. I raked out and poured vinegar in the hole that the bear had discovered. We burned the paper and plastic trash with fuel oil to exude a stinky smell, and I weedwhacked large swaths of ferns, fireweed and devil's club to knee height to provide a better view for us and less cover for them.

The next morning, we saw from our cabin that the mother had treed her cubs for safety in a tall, leaning birch tree while she went hunting or foraging. There they stayed, all day, watching us watching them, their legs dangling over the boughs like kids in a jungle gym.

The following morning we were awakened to a cry that sounded like a calf bawling. We saw only one cub in the tree. Perhaps it was crying because the other two had left it alone, or it was hungry. Mid-morning, we heard a different cry, farther away, like a donkey braying. In the evening, we heard what sounded like a series of very short dog fights in the woods behind us.

The mother never reappeared and we presumed that she had been killed, perhaps by that big grizzly bear that had passed through our yard a week earlier. Soon , we smelled something decaying in the woods, in the general vicinity of the “dog fight” sounds, but given the extent of undergrowth, we never ventured back to look! For the next week or so, we saw the cubs nearly daily. Were they remaining at the last place they had seen their mom?  Were they remaining because one had eaten so many protein rich duck eggs? Whenever they ventured down the tree and toward us, we shouted or banged pots to seem unwelcoming.  "There are millions of acres in the forest.  Go away," I would yell, as I ran toward them, banging a pot and a spoon.  I hung out laundry, thinking it might function like moving scarecrows, but they just walked under it. I tried the water sprinkler, to little effect. When they got too close to the cabin or poultry, we used bear spray. In fact, we used it all up.  Readers who haven't spent time with bears might think, "aw... they are cute." But we  know that an adult bear gulps down 20,000 calories per day in the autumn before hibernation, and this sow and three cubs were upping their intake, too. Bryan had to fly to Anchorage to buy more bear spray, plus a little slingshot with ball bearings, and two marine horns. Aiming the slingshot accurately was very difficult, but Bryan could startle the bears when he hit a branch nearby, causing them to climb up higher in the tree or head in a remote direction. They were very alert to our presence or absence, our silence or noise, and would sneak down the tree and into the yard when we went kayaking or had dinner.  One time, Bryan found a cub INSIDE the chicken run, waiting for the hens to return home. He shot it with bear spray and the blinded fellow bolted through the bushes right toward me, where I was weeding the garden!   Thanks for the warning, Bryan!

Most of the time, the ducks were excellent “watch ducks.” Pretty soon I could recognize their “bear alert” squawk.  Sure enough, a bear or two or three were on the ground and too close for comfort.  I started keeping a metal bowl and spoon on each porch which I would grab and bang while running toward them to shoo them away.  An equally important advantage of the ducks was that I could recognize when the ducks were at ease, napping or foraging in the yard, indicating that no bear was in the immediate vicinity, or when they were uneasy, lingering right along the lake shore, ready to dive in if needed. 

Clearly,  the bears were getting bigger, bulkier, and bolder. They were finding food somewhere, maybe the carcass of their mother, maybe the chickens of our only neighbor in the area. After a week, we called an officer at the Department of Fish and Game to seek advice, since the regulations explicitly disallow killing a bunch of cubs. He asked for photos and confirmed that these were less than a year old. Without their mother, their future was dim. They would be unable to den by themselves (for hibernation) and would either starve to death in the winter or succumb beforehand to a predatory adult bear (possibly attracted to our property by their presence). But beforehand, they would become marauders, trying, like any cold and starving creature, to exploit any crack or crevice to get into our buildings for food or shelter. Some young bears, for example, have been known to hibernate under porches and inside outhouses and sheds, to be discovered and aroused by a startled visitor.

In urban situations, Fish and Game has been known to remove bears, but since they can return to a spot from many miles away, this is not always effective. For our remote location, he admitted that they lacked the manpower and budget to do so. He asked if we would be willing to “dispatch” the cubs if we couldn't get them to move away on their own. To date, neither we nor or neighbors have done so, but I bet we are all thinking about it, as the birch trees shed their leaves and the temperatures drop to the 40s.    


  1. Wow! The bear photos are incredible! I love the one where she's peering right into your window. I also love how Laura's blog is organized.

  2. WOW!!!!! Read some of your blog and all I can say is WOW! What an adventure and OMG the BEARS!!! Hats off to you two! I'm living off grid in the desert north of LA and am building a shipping container tiny home. I feel grateful for how much easier the climate is here after reading your posts! It's harsh, but nothing compared to what you're dealing with!

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