Bears Now & Then

Most late afternoons or evenings I walk down a half mile of hillside to the bottomland next to the Albion River to check on the cows. They provide a bit of Cow-vid entertainment almost daily: a Dexter heifer grazing inch by inch farther from the wild rose her tail is tangled in until the tail is as high in the air as her back; the Black Baldy-Jersey mix whose gait is more reminiscent of a horse than a bovine, who also follows the flights of birds with the intense curiosity of an Audubon Society member; or the Hereford who seems to think that whenever a human stands still they are her personal scratching post. Fortunately, in the latter case, the full grown Hereford rubs her sizable noggin back and forth in a relatively gentle fashion.

During the last week of June, I meandered away from the cattle to check on the large apple orchard that gradually rises in elevation as one walks eastward through it. All the apple trees there, from Rhode Island Greening to Maiden Blush are well over a century old. In fact, those that survive date to plantings in the 1800s. I say “survive” because in the last twenty years or so some of these apple trees have been mauled to death by bears, in a few cases the weight of a big bear, or bears, has literally toppled a tree, tearing it up by the roots.

Nearing the larger Maiden Blush, I heard the distinct “harrooph” of a bear thumping to the ground under a purple plum about a hundred feet below, alongside the old river road (once the Albion River railroad). Judging by the damage, the bear had apparently just climbed into the plum tree after pulling branches down from a standing position.

Two days later, I made similar rounds, with a similar result: a bear dropping from the plum tree and scampering across to the deep woods on the other side of the Albion River. In a twenty-four hour period the bear had ravaged a half dozen plum trees of different varieties. In early July, I drove down the hill one morning only to spot a tan-splotched bear bound across the dirt road a few feet in front of me. It had just begun to pull down a couple dozen apples and some limbs from a Gravenstein my parents planted during World War II.

World War II, and the years immediately after, was also a time when bears were hunted down repeatedly by county or state hunters. The coast newspapers regularly contained notices about bears who killed sheep more or less for the sport of it, tearing the woolly animals open then leaving the bodies without even bothering to eat the meat.

Sheep-killing bears are still a problem, though we have far fewer sheep ranchers in Mendocino County in this century than there were seventy-five years ago. Bears were hunted to such small numbers that none were seen on this part of the Albion from the late 1940s through to the 1980s. A bit farther east, near Comptche, bears still caused depredation in the late 1940s as this relatively brief newspaper account from January, 1947, shows. “A good sized bear was caught by Mr. Fashauer [county hunter] in McDonald Gulch this morning. This bear had killed several sheep [belonging to] Forrest Macdonald and had done some damage at the Turner ranch. A wildcat has also been causing trouble among sheep.”

Full disclosure: Forrest Macdonald was my youngest uncle. Ironically, he did live at McDonald Gulch for several years, though there is no blood relation between the early white settlers of the gulch and my family. An older uncle, Charles Macdonald, owned a ranch on the opposite side of Flynn Creek Road, not far from the mouth of McDonald Gulch. When their father died in 1916, Uncle Charlie, then twenty-six, promised his dying father that he would help his mother raise my father and Forrest, then 9 ½ and 7 ½ respectively. In exchange half of the Macdonald ranch was deeded to Charlie.

Uncle Charlie fulfilled his promise and then some. Decades later he deeded his half of the ranch to my father, essentially for no monetary gain.

Thus, the apple trees planted by Uncle Charlie’s parents in the 1800s, and some that he helped plant and tend himself, are rather precious to me. Bears are relatively innocent creatures simply trying to live off the land themselves. So, when it comes to choosing between ancestral fruit trees and a roving ursine, some of my basic non-violent tendencies are sorely tested. 

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