USA - Bears munch crops in northern Michigan, biting into farmers’ bottom lines

17.06.2024 97 views

What happened when the bear walked into the cornfield?

It might sound like the setup to a bad joke, but farmers in northern Michigan aren’t laughing.

Some there complain black bears increasingly rip down fledgling cherry trees, shred bee boxes into toothpicks and munch through sweet corn, also taking a significant bite out of their bottom lines.

“It’s like somebody coming into your 401(k) and robbing it. It’s the same thing,” said Larry Hilbert, a fourth-generation beekeeper based in Traverse City. “I’ve had more problems in a month than my dad had in a 40-year career.”

Hilbert’s Honey Co. has spends tens of thousands of dollars each year putting up and maintaining electric fences at its 175 locations around northern Michigan, but bears can still find their way in, Hilbert said. “It’s an ongoing problem.”

The issues have worsened over the past 15 years, farmers say, as the black bear population in the northern Lower Peninsula boomed, exposing the challenges of balancing conservation of the species with minimizing negative human-wildlife encounters. Those who make their livelihood from agriculture are now criticizing state bear hunting rules.

The focal point for the majority of the nuisance complaints is a three-county area around Traverse City and the Leelanau Peninsula, home to a significant number of farms, according to Michigan Department of Natural Resources officials.

“The human population is growing. The bear population is growing as well. The space that the two would occupy isn’t growing,” said Steve Griffith, a DNR wildlife biologist who has worked in the area for nearly 25 years.

When he started, Griffith might have responded to a handful of bear calls over a season. “We can do that in a day, the last few years,” he said.

Ron Gillison, who farms the same dirt as his parents and grandparents in a 30-mile radius around Benzonia, near the shores of Lake Michigan in Benzie County, knows that all too well.

Bears, attracted by ripening corn, “maul” down the stalks in his fields, eating kernels from his crop and leaving areas ranging from the size of a living room rug to swaths as big as a pole barn flattened, he said.

While he understands he will inevitably feed some wildlife in his profession, Gillison, who farms some 1,500 acres, said bear damage represents the largest source of economic loss on his fields, sometimes affecting 2-3% of the production area.

“It’s progressively gotten worse and worse and worse. The numbers keep getting higher all the time, and we just can’t get it under control,” he said.

Employees with a company that maintains irrigation equipment on his farms won’t enter the cornfields unless Gillison accompanies them with a gun, he said, and he always carries a firearm while navigating fields where dense corn grows 10 to 12 feet tall.

The farmer has gone to great lengths to deal with his bear problem. He ensnares bears in large metal traps, which are then hauled away to relocate the bruins miles away with help from DNR biologists.

In one 14-day period, Gillison said he caught seven bears in the same spot. But, he said, the process is very time-consuming and requires constant checking, even using trail cameras.

The farmer supports loosening restrictions on hunting as a solution to his bear woes.

The hunting season, the main mechanism wildlife officials have to control the bear population, is run through an annual bear license lottery that gives first preference to repeat entrants.

In the Baldwin Bear Management Unit, a roughly 10-county hunting area roughly the size of Connecticut on the northwestern side of the Lower Peninsula, the drawing has awarded permits to hunters who have waited at least a decade in recent years, though that number is falling, according to DNR figures.

The set-up creates the perception of harvesting a bear as a rare trophy hunt, encouraging hunters to wait for only the largest animals, Gillison said.

He has taken advantage of a program, established by state law in 2014, that pairs farmers with damaged fields with hunters who have already received a license, allowing them to take bears that might be causing problems outside the normal season.

Gillison has had the most success working with hunting guides in the area, with six to eight bears harvested during the 2023 season on his land, he said.

But, as the hunters can’t use bait when participating in the program, it’s a challenge for them to have success waiting out a bear around a 100-acre patch of corn, Gillison said. Their efforts aren’t making a meaningful difference, he added.

The farmer wants the state to boost the number of bear licenses it issues, extend the fall hunting season and localize management units to target the hunt where it might help agricultural areas like his own, he said.

Gillison isn’t alone in his views.

Brian Putney grows apples, cherries and corn not far away in Benzie County. He’s had bears strip young cherry trees. “They turn them into stumps,” Putney said. “Five years of work, gone.”

As a kid growing up on the family farm, Putney had bees. No longer, he said, as bears trashed the hives 10 years ago.

“The DNR manages wildlife for the hunters, not the people of the state of Michigan. That’s just the way it is,” Putney said.

State wildlife officials do hear pressure to keep the number of bear licenses issued low, with some hunters advocating for a smaller harvest and other members of the public opposed to hunting altogether, said Cody Norton, a bear specialist with the DNR.

But the state’s goal is actually somewhere in the middle, according to Norton.

“We’re trying to balance being able to provide the benefits of having bears out on the landscape with mitigating conflicts that they’re going to cause,” he said. “You’re never going to have everybody be happy and you’re trying to find that hopefully sweet spot in the middle where you can keep conflicts low but then keep those benefits as high as they can (be).”

Around 2012, after hearing concern about the state’s bear population, with some 80 to 85% concentrated in the Upper Peninsula, the DNR cut hunting quotas across the state to grow their numbers, Norton said.

Since bear numbers have risen “quite rapidly” in the northern Lower Peninsula, he said, rebounding in areas that historically had bears but where numbers had fallen, like the Baldwin management unit, where Gillison and Putney farm and Hilbert raises his bees.

The area, especially around Traverse City, has at the same time seen many new residents not used to living in bear country, he said, adding that even longtime natives of the region might have grown accustomed to fewer bears.

Officials have been “ratcheting up” bear harvest numbers in the Baldwin unit in recent years with the goal of slowing population growth and achieving stability, Norton said. In 2024, the license quota is 395, up from 340 in 2023, when hunters registered 144 harvested bears, according to DNR documents.

While there’s a lag time between the adjustments and the reality on the ground, there’s some indications the strategy could be working. While bear nuisance complaints quadrupled since 2012, they’ve now stabilized, he said.

DNR biologists caution that for slow-reproducing species like bears, opening the floodgates on hunting could also have a significant impact on the population that has only recently expanded its presence in the area.

Still, adjusting hunting quotas may not offer direct relief for farmers in Leelanau, Benzie and Grand Traverse counties, where the majority of the issues have been observed, according to Norton.

There is little public land there, so bear hunters may not choose to hunt the area even if more had the opportunity, he said.

The DNR has recently launched a research project in the area looking at the efficacy of techniques to mitigate bear conflict, like trapping and removal, hunting and nonlethal measures. The agency will work with stakeholders like local farmers, Norton said.

“That will hopefully either give us some more tools in the toolbox or help us refine our tool set and know what’s going to be effective to us,” Norton said.

Wildlife officials are looking at all options. A new employee working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture has also recently been stationed in the area to help private landowners institute nonlethal deterrent measures, from electric fencing to solar radios playing music or automatic lights and sprinklers, according to Norton.

“I think it’s not happening fast enough, understandably so, for some of these people … it’s an annual thing for some of these farmers, like (Gillison). No question we’d like to be able to do more,” Griffith said.

“It’s always a work in progress. That’s one thing with wildlife, it’s a moving target,” the biologist said.

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