In this neck of the woods the terrain is as uneven as a pair of wide wale corduroy pants tossed haphazardly into a hamper. The ground is rough, both the texture and the topography, and for every steep hill there is a sunken valley. It is not uncommon to go from 900 feet in altitude to 1800 feet and back to 1000 feet in three quarters of a mile and then the next mile or so might be just as challenging. Perhaps it is these demanding contours that makes this place so quaint. There can be little doubt that it is the sheerness of the topography that brings the wild to these forests.
The ruggedness of the land here was not well suited for farming. Yes, it was mostly cleared at one point for sheep and later cattle. Many of the farms failed, as might be expected, when people gave up and traveled west to greener pastures. And when the eastern cities over the last one hundred years expanded this area was not developed. The soil is poor and will not percolate sewage effluent effectively. There is no logical place to build shopping malls nearby. There are few jobs in the area and it is expensive to commute these days. Still, this area has held a steady population for quite a while, growing a good deal in the 1980′s, and shrinking by a couple of hundred people at the inception of the 21st century as if to make a statement that it still wasn’t ready for real civilization. And those that live here generally live in small clusters of homes, many built a century or two ago. And there are those like me who chose to build in more remote locations because, well, we didn’t really want to be near other people.
The fact is that in 1890 this area was about 75% open land. From hill tops one could see clear into Vermont (actually the next town north) and most of the trees were along hedge rows around pastures. Now this area is about 85% forested. The woods returned as the last farms failed. For years people left the area, even well into the 20th century, in hopes of finding work or better farming. As the area reforested wildlife returned. White tailed deer, who like a good mixture of field and forest, was amongst the first animals to rediscover the area. Bobcat, fisher, gray fox, wild turkey, beaver, and black bears followed. As the forests matured the eastern coyote, a wolf coyote hybrid, entered. And some claim to have seen both mountain lions and wolves. My wife and I have seen a wolf on our own land in the not too distant past.
But it is the black bear that seems to be most comfortable. These marvelous creatures started to show up in the early 1960′s when a siting was real local news! The mature forest, thousands of acres of woods filled with red oak and beech, major areas of wild blueberries and blackberries, and varied terrain all contributed to this area being chosen by the black bear as home. The fractured crevices in vertical rocks made good overwintering dens for the bears. The clean and fresh water that abounds in the countless brooks and streams gave them a wonderful source of water. And the best part, there were few people, especially within the recesses of the steep topography that few care to travel.
If one wanders around the woods enough individual bears may become recognizable. We have watched “Minibear” a wonderful sow who is about six years old and barely larger than the twin five month old cubs she shepherds around the forest every other year. And there is “Big Black” a huge, very dark, bruin that weighs in at well over 450 pounds. He is primarily nocturnal and very wary of people. I’ve watched him from a distant ridge shake an entire beech tree from the bottom to retrieve beechnuts. He’s a dominant force in the woods and wanders over thousands and thousands of acres. He likely has a range of about 15 miles by 15 miles, or about 225 square miles so we don’t get to see him a lot. And our neighbor sees a three legged sow, she’s about eight years old, and a wonderful mother. She has a white area shaped like a “Y” on her chest to recognize her by just in case you missed the fact that she is missing a leg.
Life is good in the woods for these bears. They have plentiful food, clean water, other bears to make little bears with, and freedom. Being free is essential to the bear psyche. At least that’s what I believe. Being a bear is all about enjoying and surviving each and every day. You have to have skills to survive in the woods. You have to know where the food is. You have to know where the water is when a shallow stream dries up. If your a mom bear you have to know how to avoid “Big Black’ before breeding season so he doesn’t eat your cubs. You have to know where you can den. You have to know where the bugs ain’t. And you have to know where it is safe in the woods. That’s a lot of knowledge. Most people would perish in a couple of months left to their own devices in the woods. Bears have a set of skills, and a whole lot of knowledge, about getting through each day. One day at a time.
For the last 60 years the bears of western New England have had a pretty good gig. They have had space. They have had good food. And for the most part there interactions with the few humans that inhabit these parts have been inconsequential.
But a dark future for bears in western and northern New England looms. And yes, as one might expect, there ominous days to come will be at the hands of humans. This terrain, or at least the part of it that has high ridge lines, has been targeted for wind development. Giant turbines, reaching five hundred feet into the air to capture wind to make electricity for energy hungry urbanites who rarely even think of wildlife, much less black bears. Hundreds of turbines have been proposed for the forested ridge lines of Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. Once big business discovered they could rake in millions of public dollars to construct big turbines all bets were off. Nobody really cares about the damage that these industrial machines do. No one seems to even consider that that they are industrializing the last remaining wild areas of the northeast. It’s about profits not about ecology or environmental ethics. Yes, the very folks who created global warming and climate change will tell you it’s about being green. But anybody who knows anything about wind, especially for inland New England, will tell you that it is marginal at best, and only capable of producing power for excess demand. The kind of demand the electric companies want all of us to use so that they can keep making hordes of money. And not surprisingly no one seems to be talking about energy conservation these days. There is no profit in that.
The State of Vermont’s bear biologist, when reviewing a massive expansion of wind turbines in a National Forest in the southern Green Mountains, stated that the installation of these monstrous machines would severely impact not only the habitat but the actual bear population over a wide range of southern Vermont. Bears use ridge lines as travel corridors. These are the safe havens that they seek for refuge. Form these high precipices they can gather food, smell enemies and threats, and raise young. That these natural sanctuaries might be developed to feed human energy consumption seems somehow way beyond unfair.
It’s not as if bears will just move to another location. Fractured habitat, ecological systems that are fragmented so they become of little use, are a function of bad planning by humans. We seem to be destined to make the same errors over and over again. Usually at the cost of a wild environment of species. And in my estimation it is unforgivable.
I have to say, and few will agree with me, that this earth would be much better off with fewer people and a whole lot more bears.
Bears don’t need humans. They need room. Room to roam. Room to forage. Room for mother sows to teach their cubs. Room for those cubs to frolic and play. Room to be happy. They need room to be free.
Humans, these days, seem to need excess electricity for comfort, silly gadgets, and profit.
Guess who wins.
Written for www.wildramblings.com in September of 2012
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