(WILD LIFE) MONTANA — Considering raising chickens in your yard? These incidents might cause you to rethink that. Garbage is no longer the number one attractor of grizzly bears. The bears are flocking to chicken coops, often resulting in their own deaths as officials claim they pose a threat to humans. This has recently become more common, especially as people raise livestock without proper housing, essentially inviting predators in. Read on to learn where we should place the blame and what precautions officials urge residents to take. — Global Animal
New York Times, Felicity Barringer
WEST GLACIER, Mont. — Longing for fresh eggs, Levi and Nauni Griffith began raising chickens in their backyard. They started with a few, and eventually had 116. Until late last summer, that is, when a grizzly sow and her cub, filling the night with fearful growling, got in among the shrieking chickens and then lumbered off, leaving bits of 99 birds behind.
“There were feathers all over the yard and deep into the forest,” Mr. Griffith said. “And legs,” said his 9-year-old daughter, Arriana, wrinkling her nose.
The few survivors were found in the trees.
In northwestern Montana, as in much of the country, more people are keeping chickens. And bears of all kinds are developing a taste for poultry that lures them into populated areas, presenting a dangerous situation for both people and, especially, for bears.
“You have a clash of cultures where there are increasing numbers of bears and increasing numbers of people,” said Chris Servheen, the grizzly bear recovery coordinator in the Missoula office of the federal Fish and Wildlife Service. “Bears that are habituated and food-conditioned don’t have much of a future.”
Wildlife managers say they must euthanize repeat offenders because once bears develop a taste for chicken, the habit cannot be kicked, making the bear a continual danger to people.
But for managers like Dr. Servheen, who has worked for 20 years restoring grizzly bears to the northern Rockies, the new chicken-grizzly dynamic is infuriating. “Does it make sense to kill a grizzly because of a 25-cent chicken?” he asks.
To an ever greater extent, that is what is happening.
Tim Manley, a state wildlife manager in Kalispell, Mont., estimates that one-quarter of the bears he killed last year died because of their taste for chickens.
Stacy Courville, the wildlife manager for the Flathead Indian Reservation, captured 18 bears that raided chicken coops; 9 of them were euthanized. “The biggest threat to grizzly bears in my area is people with chickens,” he said.
The grizzly population has increased to just under 1,000 from between 300 or 400 in the fir-clad mountains along the northern Continental Divide in the past 35 years, thanks mainly to habitat protections and a ban on shooting, trapping and poisoning bears. Meanwhile, in the muddy byways of the valleys between Missoula and Glacier National Park, houses have sprouted up where grizzlies had roamed. With them came bird feeders, open garbage cans, beehives and dog food — bear magnets, all. These grizzly lures had nearly been brought under control when the backyard chicken craze took off.
“Five years ago all we talked about was garbage, garbage, garbage,” said Jamie Jonkel, a Missoula-based wildlife manager with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “Now it’s chickens, chickens, chickens.”
The problem rankles wildlife managers as far away as Alaska and New Jersey. Patrick Carr, a bear specialist for the New Jersey Department of Fish and Wildlife, said that in the northwestern part of the state, where the brown bear population has been growing, “more and more people are doing backyard chickens.” Reintroducing bear hunts in 2010 has helped alleviate the problem of people and bears interacting, he said.
But grizzly bears are protected under the Endangered Species Act, and it is illegal to shoot one unless it poses an immediate risk to human life. So wildlife managers must determine a bear’s fate. Often, to break the cycle and spare bears, the animals are tranquilized and trucked to a more remote area, in the hope they do not return. David Morris, a computer specialist with a large timber company in Whitefish, Mont., said he knew that the appeal of chickens was growing when co-workers began to ask him about his coop. “The guy two desks down got some, then the guy in front of me, then the guy next to me,” Mr. Morris said.
Like the Griffiths, his family raises chickens not far from the wildlands of Glacier National Park. Bear raids made both families consider giving up their flocks and the fresh eggs and 4-H projects that go with them. Instead, they decided to build electrically charged wire fences, the only known nonlethal solution to bear depredations.
Farther south, in the Mission Valley, in a growing Amish community in and around St. Ignatius, “every family has a chicken coop,” Mr. Courville said.
He and Mr. Jonkel, the Missoula-based wildlife manager, said that nine grizzly bears — three sows and six cubs — had grown accustomed to the taste of chicken after feasting at two coops. Three of the bears have been destroyed, and last month, Mr. Jonkel trapped one of them in Missoula and deported it to mountain forests near the Canadian border, hoping it would stay away.
Bears travel far and learn fast; sows pass along what they learn to their cubs.
“A break-in at a chicken coop becomes a cascading event,” Dr. Servheen said. “The original chicken owner fixes the problem by putting in an electric fence, but the bear carries that knowledge. They may fix the chicken coop, but we will never fix that bear.”
Electrical fences can cost hundreds of dollars, more than some people can afford. So the local office of the national environmental group Defenders of Wildlife offers subsidies for half the cost of a fence, up to $500. Twenty-five families have signed up for the subsidies this year.
“There are a lot of people, even environmentally sensitive people, who just don’t realize the problem they are causing,” said Jonathan Proctor, who heads the local office of the group. “But if they put up an electric fence, that allows the bears to teach themselves to do the right thing.”