Meet the neighbors: Bear family moves in and riles things up

by • October 23, 2015 • Feature, HighlightsComments (0)136

Illustration by Owen Tucker When a family of bears moves into the Emerson property, they are worried about the bears' safety, as well as their own.

Illustration by Owen Tucker
When a family of bears moves into the Emerson property, they are worried about the bears’ safety, as well as their own.

Earlier this fall, while playing backgammon after lunch, my husband and I both noticed dark movement through different windows. “Bear!” he announced.  “Wow, it’s a big one,” he observed through the back window. But through the side, I saw a cub, and then another, and a third, each the size and bulk of a small sheepdog.

Oh-oh.

We immediately started banging on the windows to discourage their presence. Undeterred, the sow climbed up onto our back porch, bumped our back door, and stood up to face me through the high window with a look that I interpreted as, “What, you want a piece of me, punk?” Then she swiped a small plastic container off a shelf and deftly pitched it to the cubs, who rummaged through the debris.
Bears are usually quiet, wary creatures. A whole family in our yard, in daylight, unafraid, is not a welcome set of neighbors.  Bryan saturated the air with bear spray. At the noxious fumes, the sow defecated and signaled the cubs to climb adjacent spruce trees for safety. Then she walked through the spray, past my husband and toward our ducks, who were squawking madly along the lakeshore.

The ducks glided safely into the water, but alas, the sow spotted a hen cowering below some ferns. Like a nimble footballer, she charged forward, grabbed the prize, pivoted, and trotted off into the woods, the limp body clenched between sharp teeth. Meanwhile, to our double dismay, one of the cubs had found a nest of duck eggs and devoured them.

Because they had found food, we knew we were now in trouble. The general wisdom in Alaska is that “a fed bear is a dead bear” because they can become acclimated to human sources of food, and somewhere, this sow had gained comfort around prior cabins. 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. We determined to put out the

Unwelcome Mat.

The next day, the bears had disappeared, but to discourage them, we got to work. First, we kept the poultry locked up, just in case. Then, we dumped hidden duck eggs in the lake,  poured vinegar in the despoiled nest, burned paper and plastic trash with fuel oil to discourage any interest in our burn barrel, and weed-whacked 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 the three cubs 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 awakened to a cry like a calf bawling. Only one cub remained in the tree. Perhaps it was afraid or hungry. Midmorning, we heard something like a donkey braying. In the evening, we heard sounds like a series of very short dogfights in the woods behind us.

The mother never reappeared. After a week, we smelled something decaying in the woods, in the vicinity of the “dog fight” sounds, but given the extent of undergrowth, we never ventured back to look. However, the cubs settled into that tree. Were they waiting for their mom?  Were they lingering because of those tasty eggs?

The three little guys were very alert to our presence or absence, silence or noise. They 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 disoriented fellow bolted through the bushes right toward me, where I was weeding the garden! Thanks for the warning, guy!

Our ducks were excellent “watch dogs.” When I recognized 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 the cubs to shoo them away, but I think I entertained them more than anything else.

I hoped that laundry might function like moving scarecrows. Nope. They just walked under it. I tried the water sprinkler.  Worthless. 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 think, “aw… they are cute.” Yes, that is true. But an adult bear gulps down 20,000 calories per day in the autumn before hibernation, and these three cubs were upping their intake, too.

After 10 days, it was clear that the bears were getting bigger, bulkier and bolder. They were finding food somewhere, maybe the carcass of their mother or the ripe berries in the woods

Finally, we called the Department of Fish and Game to seek advice. From photos, a warden confirmed that these guys were less than a year old. Without their mother, 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. But beforehand, they would become marauders, trying, like any cold and starving creature, to exploit every crack or crevice to get into our buildings for food or shelter. Some young bears, for example, are known to hibernate under porches and inside outhouses and sheds, to be aroused by a startled winter visitor.

In urban situations, Fish and Game has removed bears but this is not always effective, and we are too remote to warrant that effort. Our contact asked if we would be willing to “dispatch” the cubs if we couldn’t get them to move away on their own.

To date, we have not done so, postponing some inevitable showdown, as the birch trees shed their leaves and autumn temperatures continue to sink.

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