In spring 2012, Peter Shumlin — who, at the time, was the governor of Vermont — became the butt (pun intended) of jokes after he had an encounter with four black bears on his porch one night as he was allegedly naked and getting ready for bed. (The precise nature of his attire, or lack thereof, was never firmly documented; Shumlin suggestively told reporters, “Real Vermont boys don’t wear pajamas,” but alternatives could range from total nudity to a three-piece suit. The media gleefully settled on the former.)
It was late in April, and the bears were attracted to the bird feeders near the governor’s window. Risking life and limb, he tried and failed to shoo them away. Shumlin’s encounter became an object lesson for the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife’s mantra that homeowners should dismantle their bird feeders promptly at the end of winter, lest they attract bears newly emerged from hibernation and mightily hungry.
Foremost on people’s minds, for complying with this instruction, is their own safety. Yet, wildlife officials have another slogan that captures what’s at stake in these interactions: “A fed bear is a dead bear.” Bears that linger too long near homes or in residential areas are bound to become a problem (a very anthropomorphic way of looking at the issue, which could as easily be construed as humans encroaching or bear habitat). “Problem” bears can be, and are, shot by game wardens to protect homeowners. It’s an outcome almost nobody wants.
Unfortunately, the concept of a “fed bear” can be dramatically larger than the backyard bird feeder or the food scraps in our garbage containers. Vermont Public Radio last week broadcast the story of a dairy farmer in Huntington who, in 2018, had ten bears shot on his property because they ravaged parts of his 158-acre corn crop — feed for his livestock. Vermont law allows farmers to kill bears that they can demonstrate to Fish & Wildlife officials are eating their unharvested corn prior to the hunting season. A game warden must be summoned to investigate each kill. (Vermont’s bear-hunting seasons — there are two — will end this year on November 24.)
The Huntington farmer complied thoroughly with these provisions. He also explained that the seven-and-a-half miles of electric fence he would need to surround his cornfields would cost an unaffordable $80,000, and a Fish & Wildlife spokesperson doubted the fence would be effective anyway.
Yet, a neighbor in Huntington, who operates a hemp-growing operation, was outraged. Her philosophy, as she explained it to VPR, was that Vermont should develop agricultural systems that integrate human food production and wildlife together, with “free passage” allowing animals to browse. She confessed it would amount to “hubris” on her part to tell her neighbor how to conduct his business, but made the unfortunate decision of identifying him by name on Facebook postings expressing her alarm about the killings and the Vermont law. The farmer and his business became the target of social-media fury.
It’s a clash of cultures, in a way — a fourth-generation dairy farmer, proud of his heritage and conscientious in its operation, and what might be called an “alternative” farmer who harvests a newly permitted crop (and also rescues ducks) and envisions farms that aren’t islands separated from the landscape around them. With dairies facing mounting economic challenges, and the deleterious effect that the industry has had, cumulatively (with no intention to impugn the Huntington farmer’s operation), on ground and surface water, a vision akin to the hemp farmer’s may ultimately prevail. Change happens — in the coal fields of Kentucky and conceivably in the dairy fields of Vermont.
Fish & Wildlife officials described 2018 as an “outlier,” with 22 bears killed statewide “in defense of corn.” This year, apparently, the count is far lower.
The count of black bears throughout New England, however, has been rising. Vermont’s population has increased from 1,500 some 50 years ago to 5,000 now. So, therefore, have interactions between bears and humans. By nature diurnal (active during the day) — bears are in some places becoming more nocturnal, adjusting to the patterns of their human neighbors and, like Gov. Shumlin’s intruders, doing their plundering after most people have gone to bed.
So, the question arises whether 2018 will remain an outlier, or if the struggle between an important but dwindling industry (dairy farming) and a burgeoning animal population will necessitate an intervention like effective, state-supported partitions of some kind to alleviate farmers of yet another burden. It’s both a moral and an economic issue.
One thing, however, is certain: The specter of nude, Shumlinesque statuettes surrounding our cornfields like scarecrows won’t do much for tourism.