Don’t Feed the Bears…

By Rex Edluhnd

Don’t feed the bears, not even accidentally, which it turns out, many people in Pioneertown were doing by freely loading up bags and bags of uneaten food and unwanted leftovers and filling our trash bins. I added to the problem by keeping a bee colony that had made a base in an old whiskey barrel. All these things generated the gentle waft of dumpster smorgasbord and sweet honeycomb irresistible to a clever brown bear on a springtime excursion.

I am a resident of Pioneertown. This is my 3rd year being here full time, and I am still learning constantly about what it takes to exist in this still rather wild west. I am in the process of making adobe bricks for my home building project and much of the first 2 years was spent on getting the permitting department and inspectors to comprehend the ancient tradition of building with adobe. This will be the first fully permitted adobe home in San Bernadino County in about 30 years. The resistance was odd, I mean who wouldn’t want a fireproof, soundproof, earthen structure that is also, now importantly, bear proof. I set up in a camper, got all the permits for the temporary dwelling, rented a container for storage and have a lot on my plate for the build.

The last couple of years a black bear has sauntered into town, coming in at my corner of paradise, which is adjacent to the Pioneertown Preserve, a roaming area of hundreds of miles for wildlife as they are able to cruise around from Big Bear to here. It would raid the trash bins like the CIA looking for secret files and leave its distinct debris field. But it would be gone in a day or two, then life would resume. But this time was different. We have a Yogi-like professional on the scene.

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I didn’t know, and there was no one around to tell me, that an outdoor cooking area is a no-no. I also had no idea that when I was adopted by the honeybees that I would need to supply them with an electric fence. Not just any electric fence, but one strong enough to deter a bear, not found at Tractor Supply! It needs to be above one Joule in power. The rest of the supplies can be found there, but you’ll need to order the power source online.

In mid-April I had a giant raid on my outdoor refrigerator and cooking area (that I no longer have) and the strategic heist of all the honeycomb. This massive mammal gave my homestead a five-star rating and even though everything is now stripped bare for the bear, she comes by almost every night to check. She can smell through the container, she knows her “stuff” is in there and is always trying the lock. Initially, I put a steel spike in the door latch, but after coming out and seeing it bent nearly in half, I upgraded to an oversized padlock. It would be in the container in a heartbeat without that lock.

I had a total of 3 raids. Once to the refrigerator. Then again before I had time to relocate the stuff, even though I had stacked a half dozen pallets in front of it. Those were tossed aside like a pillow even though there was little left to consume. The third night I was ready with pans to clang and was getting annoyed. The persistent bear showed up at 2AM. My dog Polly was going ballistic in the camper, but the big black bear did not seem to care. I hustled to the door and fought Polly to keep her in. I’m not willing to risk my girl getting swatted by a bear in the middle of the night. As I came out as cacophonous as possible, the culprit lumbered off into the night, right past me. Bleary eyed and only recently shocked awake, I was kind of confused as to what I saw. The bear stole my microwave – ran off with it by the cord! It must smell like food. As I looked at the wreckage and was getting ready to try bed again, I saw that the bear had come back and was cautiously easing towards me, only about ten feet away. I was pretty spooked, but the reissuance of clanging pans and a shocked expletive got it to run off. Geez. But now, I am getting used to it and have even started referring to her (I am guessing it’s a her) as Brenda.

Picture courtesy of Sheree Sorens: Brenda possibly thinking about stealing neighbor’s vehicle to go for a joyride or maybe a cross-country picnic basket robbery spree.

The next morning, I discovered she had also climbed up a rickety ladder, leaned against my big metal shipping container, and readdressed the beehive remains that I had placed up there. I had hoped it was a safe place for the hive to regroup. I even purchased a legit hive setup and took slices of honeycomb that I placed between the frames to give it a new start. There was also a big plastic container with the combs I had salvaged with about 8 gallons of honeycomb there for the bees to work with. At least, there “was”.

Brenda climbed the ladder. It was weird to see that she not only got up there but didn’t destroy a bit of the hive. She moved the top off and carefully lifted out the honeycomb from between frames just like you would if you were pulling a document from a filing cabinet. She stripped it completely and ate every speck of honeycomb from the bin – licked it clean. The plastic wasn’t even sticky. I still have a hive but will refrain from beekeeping until I am no longer considered a 5-star bear restaurant. When I do the bee thing again, it will have an electric fence.

Which leads me to what one CAN do about bears.

Since dozens of locals flooded the Department of Fish and Wildlife, as well as the rangers in the Pioneertown Preserve, with alarmed phone calls, we were graced with a presentation of Living with Bears by the Rangers who held a bear-centric community meeting at the Pioneertown Fire Station.

Relocation is not an option. It usually serves as a death sentence for the bear, and even sanctuaries are the equivalent to jail. Plus, I spent some time discussing options with sanctuaries. The expense is pretty significant. Just to build the enclosure to contain these demolition experts would cost around 60K.

It appears there is nothing much that can be done other than making it barren for the bear. We need to focus on removing all food sources. This includes dog food, chicken feed, horse treats, bird seed, and certainly no outdoor refrigerators. Only a fool would have something like that.

If you have fruit trees, harvest them as soon as the fruit is ripe. Fruit fermenting on the ground is a big-time bear attractor.

Bee hives and chicken coops are going to need an electric fence. I did not know that, and now what WAS a beehive is just a couple scraps of wax I salvaged. (You can see the devastation from Brenda eating a barrel of honey at my Instagram @wildmojaveranch

I asked if it is a bad idea to even have a beehive. The ranger informed me that with the electric fence, it is such a deterrent, it effectively counteracts whatever attraction the smell creates. Incidentally, a bear will know what you have. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a bear’s sense of smell is 7 times better than a Bloodhound’s or 2,100 times better than a human’s. Lock things up tight. It can’t be hidden.

Try not to have any tasty bits like apples or other fruit in your composting. Bears are omnivores that eat a primarily vegetarian diet. But keep that “omni” part on your mind. Though they would love a bowl of apples, they may also eat your face. No touching.

Keep your food waste inside a locked area or in your refrigerator until the morning of trash pickup. We should be able to communicate this effectively to our residents, but Pioneertown is almost half Airbnbs, and visitors leave tons of food behind. Getting the operators of those establishments as well as their cleaning crews onboard to deter bears will be a bigger challenge. Most often there is no one to actually talk to. It will have to be an ongoing effort.

Another challenge is the dumpsters. They have plastic lids that the bear can bypass in a second even if locked. The contract for trash removal from our tiny mountain- adjacent town is Burrtec Waste. Though many Pioneertown residents have requested bearproof receptacles, with metal lids, it is not something they currently have in inventory – something to consider the next time that contract is granted. We need tougher receptacles.

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This isn’t just a town problem. Unless we take real action, it will become a bigger one.

A local caterer and chef in the Rimrock area had a vintage trailer turned into a commercial kitchen. Brenda cavalierly tossed the door aside to rummage around and rid the space of all baking ingredients.

It’s a shame there was no security footage. As the bear hoovered up all the flour and powdered sugar, we could have gotten a LOT of great “Cocaine Bear” memes out of that event. I have another neighbor that lost a shed door because there were some horse treats inside. Brenda has a mean sweet tooth.

On the evening of our Living With Bears talk, the ranger told stories of incidences such as a bear busting a shower window to get a bottle of mango conditioner. The smell was just too tempting. He also shared a photo of a sweet, little old lady illegally feeding a black bear. She was known to do this regularly until, one day, a bear was curious about just how sweet she was and devoured her.

Again, NO FEEDING and NO TOUCHING!

The takeaways from our Living With Bears meeting was… live with bears. Remove any and all food sources. Get yourself a can of bear strength pepper spray, an air horn, and maybe even a paintball gun to make the area unfriendly, and they will eventually move on.

It’s been a month, and as of just last night, Brenda roams the dirt roads of Pioneertown all night, infuriating the dogs, and making a good night’s sleep a thing of the past. She comes by, tests the lock on my container and moves along. But she does this 2 or 3 times a night, even though I have completely removed all potential treats. It must have been really, really good honey. I hope to find out someday.

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