Electric fencing will keep bears out of the coop

An electric fence protects a chicken coop near Vallecito Reservoir. The energizer can be seen at the far left. Enlarge photo

Courtesy of Earl Wilkening

An electric fence protects a chicken coop near Vallecito Reservoir. The energizer can be seen at the far left.

One of my favorite takeaways from a bear conference last year in Missoula, Mont., was a photo with this caption: “Don’t let your chickens kill a bear!”

The picture was part of a presentation about the growing trend of backyard chickens and wildlife managers’ mounting frustrations with having bears killed, or having to euthanize bears, for getting into chicken coops.

More recently, a mid-June KTVA news report in Anchorage, Alaska, described a number of homeowners legally shooting bears in defense of backyard chickens. The news account had Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Jessy Coltrane asking for chicken-rearing residents to be more proactive in using electric fencing. She said “a good electric fence is the best nonlethal method” she knows for keeping bears away from chickens.

She’s not alone. The message at the Missoula bear conference was clear: If you are making an investment in chickens or other livestock, erecting an electric fence is simply the right thing to do.

According to bear managers, electric fencing is a breakthrough achievement for keeping bears (including grizzlies, naturally) out of almost anything – beehives, fruit trees, chicken coops, livestock enclosures, compost, grain sheds, landfills and even unoccupied vacation homes. Most notably, electric fencing reduces chicken, beehive and sheep depredation.

Although it may sound complicated and expensive, electric fencing can be a relatively simple, cost-effective and long-term solution for protecting bear attractants that cannot be easily removed or otherwise contained. Temporary or permanent designs can be adapted to a variety of situations. Electric fencing for an average-sized chicken coop should run between $150 and $400.

And, unlike other deterrents, (such as rubber bullets or banging pots and pans in your pajamas at 3 in the morning), electric fencing is a “passive” deterrent, in that it is always working – whether you’re around or not.

These fences provide an electrical shock when an animal comes into contact with the charged wires of the fence. Design, construction, maintenance and inspection will determine the effectiveness of an electric fence. For an easy-to-follow guide about electric fencing for bears, produced by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, email Bear Smart Durango (bp@frontier.net).

Safety always is a concern, and today’s electric-fence energizers have been shown to be safe for children, pets and vegetation. Touching an electric fence still remains unpleasant, but one walks away uninjured, unlikely to repeat the experience.

How the fence is grounded is an important consideration, but most crucial is the joule rating of the energizer – to effectively deter bears, a minimum of 6,000 volts is required. For small areas, such as chicken coops or two to three fruit trees, you typically will need an energizer with a joule rating between 0.7 and 1.0.

Whether your goal is protect valuable egg-laying hens, prevent the loss of limbs on your fruit tree or keep a prized 4-H pig safe, electric fencing has proven extremely effective in deterring bears.

We should expand that first statement: Don’t let your pig, fruit tree or chickens kill a bear!

bp@frontier.net. Bryan Peterson is director of Bear Smart Durango, formed in 2003 to educate residents about coexisting with bears and reduce the amount of human food available to bears. Visit www.bearsmartdurango.org or follow on Facebook.