Electric Fences Make Good Neighbours—for People and Bears

At our house, Halloween might be spooky but it's not shocking. A portable electric fence around our crab apple tree keeps the bears out.
At our house, Halloween might be spooky but it’s not shocking. A portable electric fence around our crab apple tree keeps the bears out.

For Halloween, some of my neighbours entertain spooky creatures and they have tombstones and cobwebs in their yards. Me? I’m an outlier; at this time of year, I go for something shocking—yet practical—in our yard. Each year, I put up a portable electric fence around our crab apple tree to keep bears out. When set-up, it stands a few feet from the walkway to our front door.

My friends and neighbours, kids and all, are used to the electric fence. Nevertheless, I turn it off on Halloween Eve so visitors who might not be familiar with electric fences don’t accidentally get a shock. I do this because I’m concerned about the potential for bringing kids to tears and the associated psychological effects on parents who might not know about the benefits and safety features of appropriately designed and constructed electric fences. I use a charger (also know as an energizer) for electric fencing that has been tested and certified to meet national performance and safety standards (i.e., Canadian Standards Association in Canada) and I use standards and guidelines for equipment, materials, and design considered appropriate for safe use. For those of you who want to use electric fences to deter bears, you’ll find lots to get you started and on the right track in this post.

I am relatively unconcerned about the safety of my electric fence. However, from the perspective of a bear specialist who works to help others manage human–bear interactions, I am concerned about the potential threats to people and bears that are associated with bears gaining access to foods of human origin (attractants hereafter). In the DVD Staying Safe in Bear Country: a Behavioral Based Approach to Reducing Risk, the Safety in Bear Country Society puts risks for people and bears into perspective:

 

“Despite their formidable strength and their potential for aggression, violent encounters between bears and humans are surprisingly rare. In North America, on average three people die from bear attacks each year, although injuries occur more frequently. On some occasions, it may be necessary to destroy a bear to defend a person’s life or property. Regrettably, hundreds of other bears are also shot and killed every year, needlessly.” (Safety in Bear Country Society 2008)

 

Professionals specializing in bears and human–bear interaction research and management focus on a few key areas to achieve a more peaceful co-existence with grizzly bears and black bears. Strategies that effectively prevent bears from accessing food from people are widely accepted as important for reducing risks for people and bears. In many parts of North America, electric fences are important tools in a way of life that is more about preventing conflicts with bears and then responding to those do occur, as needed to appropriately manage risks, than simply reacting to bears involved in incidents by killing them. Properly managed, electric fences can be very effective for securing attractants on the inside and keeping bears on the outside.

 

So why write about electric fences when most black bears and grizzly bears are hibernating (at least in my area)?

Over the last couple months, electric fences have been a popular topic of conversation in my life. I’ve had more questions and comments about electric fences than ever; that’s exciting because usually I’m the one who brings them up and advocates for their use. Since the mid 1990s, I’ve used various styles of electric fences, for a variety of situations, to prevent bears from getting into attractants at home (e.g., crab apple trees, compost boxes) and on whitewater rafting trips (e.g., kitchen and food storage). They can be so effective for deterring bears that it just makes sense to me to use them. They make my life easier. I don’t have bear induced messes to clean up or property damage. More importantly, I’m not contributing to incidents involving bears getting food from people that result in dead bears, an all too common outcome of conflicts between people and bears, or rare but tragic outcomes for people that could have been prevented. For many types of attractants that are challenging to secure, an electric fence can be an effective tool for managing them.

For those of us who live in bear country, winter is a great time to reflect on how the previous active season for bears unfolded. That way, if interactions weren’t as peaceful as they could have been, there’s lots of time to think about how best to improve the situation for next year. Most bear incidents are preventable. A good way to learn how to live more peacefully with bears is to draw on the experiences and lessons learned by others who have found successful ways of living with bears no incidents or at least few of them, over the long-term. People have been using electric fences to deter bears for decades. Some factors that influence the standards needed to build an electric fence that effectively deters bears includes the value of the attractant inside the fence relative to options available outside the fence, the personality and situation of the bear, and the situation of the attractant (e.g., location relative to natural habitats, wildlife trails and routes, security cover).

If you think electric fences might be an option for you, there are lots of information resources that are available to help you think about your particular situation, plan over the winter, and prepare for action when the bears spring forth from their dens.

 

E Fence Around Bee Hive
Electric fences are clearly a good solution for deterring bears from beehives because bears love honey. They eat eggs, larvae, and adult bees too. I have a classic research article that reports the effectiveness of electric fencing to deter black bears from beehives in California. It was written in 1938!

 

Electric fences come in handy for many types of bear attractants.

Finnegan's Point Camping Area - wall tent and bear proof cache
Electric fences come in handy for preventing bears from getting into cooking and food storage areas. Or sometimes, people use them to deter bears from accessing an entire camp.

Some of the types of bear attractants that people successfully secure within electric fencing include

  • compost
  • individual and scattered fruit trees
  • gardens
  • beehives
  • chicken coops and runs
  • preparation and storage areas for fish, game and other meats (e.g., smoke houses, meat hanging areas)
  • livestock
  • storage areas for pet and livestock foods
  • commercial vineyards, orchards, and berry crops
  • backcountry food storage and cooking areas
  • campgrounds and day use areas
  • semi-permanent and permanent camps, recreational and industrial
  • landfills, transfer stations, and recycling depots and
  • much, much more…

 

Electric fences, as bear deterrents, are a fact of life in some parts of North America but they’re definitely not popular in communities in the region I live.

In my community, I’m an outlier. I can’t recall ever seeing another electric fence set up in town so I’m definitely not trendy, at least not yet. However, I know of numerous, if not many, places where the use of electric fences to deter bears are more the norm, at least in some specific contexts. I’m hopeful that one day electric fences will be a part of the lifestyle here too. Having said this, a major success story for people and bears in our region, the northwestern third of British Columbia, is that electric fences are required for landfills.

A shared vision and friendly reminders can make all the difference for preventing bear incidents.

An outhouse outfitted with electric 'fencing' (or wires) to deter bears at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park, Alaska.
An outhouse outfitted with electric ‘fencing’ (or wires) to deter bears at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park, Alaska.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend remarked that I had put up my electric fence later than usual. Without thinking, I started making excuses about the apples not being quite ripe and not seeing any evidence of bears yet this season. But she was right. From a proactive viewpoint, I was late because I know apples are a major attractant. Over the long-term, it’s more probable than not that in some years bears would be interested in the apples earlier than when I put the fence up. Plus, it’s possible that I wouldn’t detect bear sign before problems occurred.

For the rest of the time, since I initiated my career as a wildlife ecologist, I’ve been proactive about preventing conflicts with bears. I’ve been successful—despite living, working, and recreating in prime bear habitats and along major travel routes. Honestly, adopting a prevention of problems with bears lifestyle has been relatively easy, certainly not a chore.

So why was my resolve flagging this fall? On the surface, factors contributing to my poor bear etiquette included a broken ankle and an office move, both recent distractions. Add to this, one of my two electric fence chargers had a broken switch. (The one that is less fussy to set up.) Nevertheless, I think an underlying and more important factor, is that where I live relatively few people proactively prevent conflicts with bears, much like many people in many communities in the range of bears in North America.

I know it takes a community (or at least groups of people working together) to prevent the types of bear incidents that result in people’s concerns for public safety and property. I also know that the number of cities, towns, villages, and rural areas that are implementing more proactive community-based approaches to preventing conflicts between people and bears are gradually increasing, across North America. But such ideas are just germinating in northern British Columbia. I need to remind myself that change is a process.

Now, I’m back on track and I hope that others will join me. In the meantime, I anticipate that bears will continue to move through our yard—past our bear resistant garbage bin, bird feeder, apple tree, and compost—to access a maze of attractants that remain available to bears in my community and that some if not most of these bears will eventually be killed by people. I’m looking at incremental progress, one-step-at-a-time.

Sometimes, people could use some help to find good information and other resources to prevent bear incidents.

Untitled
Fish and game are powerful attractants for bears. Electric fences can be highly effective to secure areas where fish and game are prepared, processed, and stored.

A few weeks ago, I was pleasantly surprised when a friend asked me some questions about electric fencing because he was thinking about building one to keep bears out of his garden and apple trees. (Many thanks to him for the motivation to get this post off my to do list.) I suspect the conversation might have been primed, in part, by the electric fence in our front yard. Additionally, in the Bulkley Valley, last summer and fall were rough for the frequency and types of bear incidents that were occurring so the topic was on many people’s minds. The summer was unseasonably dry and some crops of native berries were poor, at least at low elevations. Surprisingly, we weren’t finding evidence of bear activity in our yard, which was unusual.

As it works out, the level of interest that I’ve been getting from people thinking about and looking for solutions this year was timely. I was due for inspiration to refresh my resolve!

 

Sometimes, people don’t have the capacity to prevent bear incidents.

One of these days I write more about this. I’ll just say here that not all people have the capacity to act to prevent bear incidents. This is where collaboration to find community-based solutions that are acceptable and that work is important.

 

The standards and practices needed for an electric fence to be effective, yet practical, will vary depending on the food value of the attractant and associated context.

Compost Boxes
I assess the probability of bears getting into our compost and manage it accordingly to make sure that bears don’t get into it. If I think it’s needed, I put up the electric fence.

The goal is to prevent bears from gaining access to attractants. Considerations include the probability of bears encountering the fenced attractant and the benefits and costs that bears perceive when they encounter it. If a bear thinks the food inside is worth the effort, it will tenaciously work overtime to get at it. When it comes to food, bears are curious, intelligent, athletic, and agile but it is still possible to out think bears. An electric fence can be very effective for deterring bears from gaining access to attractants provided the appropriate equipment and materials are used to construct the fence, it is appropriately designed for the purpose, and it is properly installed, monitored, and maintained. There are many options available for electric fencing equipment, materials, and design. They can be temporary, semi-permanent, or permanent structures. If you are thinking of using electric fencing as a bear deterrent, the following are some considerations that matter:

  • Attractants: type, volume, and quality of the attractant,
  • Suitability of habitats for bears: proximity, quality, and distribution of natural habitats used by bears,
  • Travel or movement corridors: proximity of travel routes (e.g, trails, forest edges, green space) used by bears, and levels and timing of use, and
  • Security cover: proximity of vegetation (e.g., trees, tall shrubs, thick bush) that bears might use for security to avoid people and other bears.

Similar to managing composts, there isn’t a one size fits all strategy. At one end of the spectrum, it might not be all that reasonable to even consider putting up an electric fence around an apple tree in the heart of downtown Vancouver. At the other end, it’s clear a landfill that is located in bear country will need the best quality materials and standards and practices available to be effective. The more attractive the items you want to secure, the more thought you will need to put into designing a fence to keep bears out, particularly if bears are likely to feed, travel, or seek security cover nearby.

 

Thanks to Lothar, compost manager, our compost boxes are usually working efficiently to break down organic materials. As such, I usually consider it a relatively low level attractant but I am careful to not add large amounts of potentially attractive materials at a time. I put up an electric fence if I think the potential attractiveness to bears is increasing and when I know that bears are in the area, sometimes in the spring and usually in the fall.

 

Don’t rely on results in one year to assume that bears won’t be a concern in the next year; that is, anticipate variability in human–bear interactions.

If you’re living in bear country, you can anticipate some variability among years in numbers of bears, their habitat use and food habits, and their movements. In some years, there might be no or relatively few bears interacting with people in a particular area and in other years there might be many more. A couple of key factors that are likely to influence variability in the frequency and nature of interactions between people and bears is the availability and quality of natural food resources and attractants (recall that I’m referring to foods of human origin here). Bears are driven to find the best quality food resources possible given other needs, to store energy for hibernation, and to stay safe. Human–bear conflicts and other incidents involving bears escalate when attractants are available to bears, particularly in years when important natural food resources, such as salmon runs or berry crops, fail.

 

 

Crab Apple Tree in Full Bloom
I enjoy our crab apple tree immensely when it’s in full bloom. However, the tiny fruits (cherry sized) are a major challenge to pick. The easiest solution for me to prevent bears from getting into them is to set up a portable electric fence until the snow flies. A bonus: I get to watch the grouse feed on them in the winter, a win-win solution.

 

 

Yes, I’m hopeful that we’ll find better ways of moving forward to coexist more peacefully with bears.

Some of key ingredients for success are people’s knowledge about bears and human–bear interactions and their willingness and capacity to act on knowledge gained. Again, change is a process.

 

A few observations and comments regarding the safety of electric fences:

People often express concerns about the safety of electric fences. I am a wildlife ecologist so I would need to consult with qualified professionals in other disciplines, such as electrical engineering and medicine, to give a completely informed and detailed response to this question. A few years ago, I tried to find an interdisciplinary response specific to the safety of electric fences, as a bear deterrent, but I didn’t find what I was looking for. If you know of a potentially suitable resource that I can share with others, please send me a comment. Here are a few of my thoughts relevant to the safety of electric fences:

  • I use chargers for electric fencing that have been tested and certified to meet Canadian Standards Association performance and safety standards. I heed warnings and follow instructions that come with the equipment I use.
  • Electric fences to deter bears are widely accepted by bear experts, in Canada and the U.S., as an effective and practical tool to prevent bears from gaining access to attractants, a key component of proactive management to prevent human–bear conflicts and other incidents involving bears. Remember, bear hazards also need to be considered in the decision-making process.
  • Numerous government agencies promote the use of electric fences and use them to deter bears in a wide variety of contexts. Check out this webpage to see an electric fence that Parks Canada installed around the Lake Louise Campground in Banff National Park.
  • Electric fences are commonly used on farms to contain livestock. I know lots of people with stories, from when they were kids, about tricking unsuspecting friends into getting shocked by an electric fence. I was one of those unsuspecting kids. I was visiting a friend’s sheep farm. It only happened once; I learned, like bears will learn given the appropriate set-up.
  • I heed warnings and follow instructions that come with information resources for electric fencing to deter bears that have been prepared by reliable sources, to the best of my knowledge.
  • As needed, I consult with other qualified professionals to make informed decisions that consider and manage the risks associated with human–bear interaction hazards and electrical hazards. For example, I’m not concerned about the portable electric fences that I use at home and at work. However, for commercial or public use I would consult with people well-qualified in the design and installation of electric fences for the purposes of deterring bears and perhaps qualified persons in other areas of expertise, depending on the situation and as considered appropriate given the project needs and my areas of expertise.

 

Gather knowledge and expertise and identify any legal constraints or requirements.

Look for local wildlife officers, wildlife biologists with bear expertise, bear awareness educators, and others with local knowledge to gather area-specific information about bears to support your decisions regarding the management of attractants. This will help you achieve to success the first time, without unnecessarily going overboard given the attractant and context. For more complex or challenging projects, qualified professionals will be needed to provide support for achieving objectives and to avoid spending more money to trouble shoot and fix problems. Consult with relevant authorities to ensure compliance with any legal constraints or requirements governing the use of electric fences for the purposes of deterring bears. For example: in Canada, chargers for electric fencing need to be Canadian Standards Association approved; some rivers in national parks, in Canada and the U.S., have regulations to ensure that food and garbage are stored in a bear-resistant manner; and in Canada and the U.S., some agencies have specific requirements for approved makes and models of bear-resistant equipment.

Some Information Resources

The following are some resources to support the selection of equipment and materials and the design, installation, maintenance, and monitoring of electric fences to deter bears. I have also posted a list of bear awareness and safety information resources that I commonly use here.

 

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks

Check out the introductory level Electric Fence Guide for Bears that is available on the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks website.

Annis, Kim. 2014. Deterring Bears with Electrified Fencing: A starter’s guide to constructing a front country electric fence. Unpublished report prepared for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

 

Living with Wildlife Foundation

The Living with Wildlife Foundation website also has lots of great resources: http://www.lwwf.org/

Look for the following comprehensive guide for electric fencing on their website:

Sowka, P. 2013. Living with Predators Resource Guide Series—Practical electric fencing resource guide: controlling predators. Produced by the Living with Wildlife Foundation in cooperation with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Living with Black Bears, Grizzly Bears and Lions Project. 2013 Edition. Arlee, Montana.

 

Alaska Department of Fish and Game

Alaska Department of Fish and Game website also has some good resources. Electric fences are much more a way of life in many parts of Alaska than they are in B.C.

 

Margo Supplies Ltd.

On their website, Margo Supplies Limited provides information to choose a system of electric fence that will work best for you and sells supplies and equipment to build them. I order my equipment and supplies from them. Over many years, owner Jeff Marley has worked at the forefront of building electric fences to deters. He has worked alongside many other bear specialists and he has generously communicated his knowledge and shared his expertise with many that have sought his help, including me. The electric fence at the Lake Louise Campground in Banff National Park is the most famous and well-visited of his works that I know of.

More Information

If you want to see a bear think its way through a problem, watch the following videos. You might just be shocked by the intelligence and tenacity of bears, particularly if there are food rewards at stake.

The National Outdoor Leadership School has some great video of testing that they did of electric fences for backcountry food storage and camps. This was to get approval from the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee for an electric fence to effectively deter bears.

The Huffington Post has posted a video of a grizzly bear working its way through a problem; how to get a deer carcass that has been electrified.

Note: I don’t think this bear was “smarter than your average bear.” It was just doing what lots of bears would probably have done given the opportunity and time, particularly if people are absent. A take home lesson for building electric fences to deter bears that I see in this footage: secure the battery and charger within the perimeter of the electric fence so that the bear can’t purposely or inadvertently disable the fence.

 

References

Safety in Bear Country Society. 2008. Staying Safe in Bear Country: a behavioral-based approach to reducing risk. Revised Edition. Produced by Wild Eye Productions, Atlin, B.C. in association with AV Action Yukon Ltd.

Storer, T. I., G. H. Vansell, and B. D. Moses. 1938. Protection of mountain apiaries from bears by use of electric fence. Journal of Wildlife Management 2:172-178.

2 Responses

  1. Sybille
    |

    Nice post Deb – I am now tempted to buy one, though I suppose they are fairly expensive

  2. Deb Wellwood
    |

    Thanks! I bought a portable set-up with a solar panel for somewhere around $400.00. I’ve used this one for home and whitewater rafting (where it gets woman-handled through rapids and packing and unpacking). It’s been going strong for 10 years. Last winter the charger got knocked over in my shed, which broke the switch, so I used my back-up this year. It should be repairable. I expect that people will want to weigh costs and benefits of an electric fence. Sometimes, electric fences are more clearly needed in problem solving for a more peaceful coexistence (e.g., smokehouses, beehives, landfills); sometimes, there are other options (e.g., picking apples before their ripe); sometimes, there are tradeoffs (e.g., paying for an electric fence to help bears stay out of trouble with an apple tree and to enjoy grouse feeding in it in winter); sometimes, a collaborative venture might be more affordable and acceptable (e.g., electric fence around a community garden and compost; group purchased electric fence to share for backcountry trips). Best wishes!

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