On the Farm, Scaring Away the Bears


Photo by peupleloup/Flickr CC

Most pests you can pluck off plants and squish. Aphids, small as specks? Mashed by the dozen. Potato beetles can--and should--be mercilessly pinched between a thumb and a finger. Cruel world, but our crops are for people, not cabbage worms, which we drown or suffocate in a jar. Some foes, however, come bigger. Like 300 pounds, with teeth and claws.

Black bears roam our farm. I hadn't expected them, but I should have, considering the national park (Shenandoah) in our backyard. The bears, it turns out, often amble out of the woods hungry. They devoured our peaches, and now they're after our corn. One morning last week a bear stood on two legs a few feet from our front door, pawing an apple tree.

The savvy foragers need to down about 12,000 calories a day, and they can smell ripening fruit like a dog on a trail. Last month, as soon as our beautiful, rosy peaches started to turn, the bears ate every last one. Acres of juicy New and Red Havens, gone. We'd waited too long to fence the orchard. But the cornfield, we thought, was secure. Then the bears wriggled under the gate.

This farm is not a bear buffet. And we could hardly accommodate the burgeoning population: about 15,000 bears across Virginia.

We could tell: they knocked down stalks, shucked and gnawed cobs, and left deposits behind. We cursed them, but I also felt awed. Such shrewdness and power. And organic Brocade and Silver Queen sweet corn? Nice taste.

But this farm is not a bear buffet. And we could hardly accommodate the burgeoning population: about 15,000 bears across Virginia. That number is growing at more than 9 percent a year, says Jaime Sajecki, black bear project leader for the state Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Over the last century, she says, bears have come back from the brink of extinction, helped by hunting restrictions, conservation land, and second-growth forests that have sprung up on deserted farmland.

Around here, bears may also be thriving because of a crackdown on bear paw soup. In the late '90s, a three-year federal investigation actually dubbed SOUP (Special Operation to Uncover Poaching) picked up several neighbors trafficking in bear parts, mainly paws and gallbladders.

The paws--especially the front left one, I've heard, tender from being licked and scratching for salt--apparently make a delicious brothy soup that goes for more than $1,000 a bowl in China. The gallbladders, dried and powdered, produce tinctures said to cure ailments as varied as heart or liver disease, hemorrhoids, hangovers, coughing, and cancer. Each little sack can fetch $10,000 on Asian black markets. A couple from the next town over admitted that for more than a decade, they had sold about 300 gallbladders a year.

If you really wanted to, you could still make bile elixirs or bear paw soup legally here. You'd just have to kill the bear yourself, only one a year, over 100 pounds, not a mother with cubs, during hunting season. (Virginia has three, for archery, muzzleloaders, and firearms.) Farmers, if their livelihood is truly at stake, may be eligible for off-season kill permits, but Ms. Sajecki doesn't like those, and neither do we.

Instead, our rugged farm director rides around at dusk on a four-wheeler, scaring bears back into the forest. For all their strength, they're skittish creatures. Some people keep dogs in orchards to bark away bears. A local wildlife biologist suggests sounding the occasional air horn.

Too bad we can't set up a bear-only farmers' market. You want peaches? Fine, hand over a quart of honey. Or let me play with that cute little cub.