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Vt. Farmers Can Legally Kill Bears Eating Their Corn, But Debate Over Practice Persists

A man in a hat leaning over and pointing a corn stalks on the ground.
Liam Elder-Connors
/
VPR
Tim Taft, a dairy farmer in Huntington, examines bear damage in one of his cornfields. Last year, he estimates he lost about $17,000 due to bears eating his corn.

Vermonters pride themselves on their connection to the land, but sometimes how one person values the natural world clashes with another's belief.

Such a tension has been playing out in Huntington, a small valley town in Chittenden County where one dairy farmer has been accused of needlessly killing bears. The farmer, however, said if he didn't, his entire business could have been in trouble.

Tim Taft is standing at the edge of one of his cornfields, looking out at the sea of green stalks slowly swaying in the breeze. The fourth-generation dairy farmer grows about 150 acres of corn, which is a key ingredient in the feed he gives to his herd of 240 cows.

He points straight ahead at the field: "If we go right in through here, we're going to find a pocket right here."

The "pocket" that Taft is talking about is not far from the road. After about 30 seconds of walking through the tightly planted rows of corn, there's an open patch where a mass of stalks have been knocked down and stripped of corn — this is what bear damage looks like, Taft said.

A drone photo of a corn field where bears ate away large patches.
Credit Courtsey of Tim Taft
Drone footage of one of Tim Taft's cornfields in 2018 when he was experiencing massive crop loss due to bears.

Last year, Taft suffered enormous losses from bears eating his corn: about $17,000 dollars, he estimated.

"For us $17,000 is a lot for this business to lose," Taft said. "If we had not done anything and lost potentially double that, I don't know if we would have had enough money to buy enough corn to keep the number of cows we have."

For Taft, it came down this choice: let the bears eat his corn or get rid them. That's why, last year, Taft had 10 bears killed on his property. He shot two of them; others hunters took the rest.

This is allowed under Vermont law. Farmers can kill bears eating unharvested corn prior to the hunting season, and a game warden is required to investigate each kill. The normal bear hunting season limit is one, but landowners are allowed to take multiple bears if the animals are damaging corn.

"There's no insurance for animal damaged crop," Taft said. "There was just no, I don't believe there was any other option for us at the time. I still don't think there is."

"There's no insurance for animal damaged crop. ... I don't believe there was any other option for us at the time. I still don't think there is." — Dairy farmer Tim Taft, Huntington

But up a long, bumpy road next door, the neighbors at Sho Farm had a very different take.

Their farm is picturesque, sitting just below the peak of Camel’s Hump. In the yard outside of a large, rustic farmhouse, a flock of rescued ducks waddle around a hemp plant.

"We're a certified hemp grower this year, and we're calling it 'CBDuck,'" said Sho Farm founder Melissa Hoffman.

Ducks in a yard outside of a barn.
Credit Liam Elder-Connors / VPR
The flock of rescued ducks at Sho Farm in Huntington.

Hoffman moved to Huntington in 2003 and started Sho Farm. The operation is guided by a philosophical approach to agriculture that looks at how ecosystems interact and influence each other, and Hoffman said the farm also works to maintain wildlife in the region.

"We're looking at how to structure perennial food systems so that wildlife can browse, they can assist that food system, they can have free passage," she said, "and how to integrate agriculture and wildlife together."

When Hoffman first heard a rumor about the bears killed next door, she was concerned. When she confirmed that 10 bears were killed, she was horrified.

"When I discovered that that many bears had been killed last year, that was tragic. That's a tragedy," Hoffman said. "And I think more of us need to react to it that way."

"When I discovered that that many bears had been killed last year, that was tragic. That's a tragedy. And I think more of us need to react to it that way." — Farmer Melissa Hoffman, Huntington

Hoffman posted on Facebook detailing the number of bears killed and naming the Tafts. The comments section was a deluge of outrage and included calls to boycott the Tafts' products.

Hoffman said she wasn't trying to personally attack the Tafts by publishing the information, rather she wanted to highlight a practice that she thinks is morally wrong.

"More people should feel free to disagree without making it a personal attack — and also with suggestions and kindness of an alternative," she said. "But it's hard when, you know, who am I to tell a dairy farmer how to do their work? You know, there's a certain amount of hubris and arrogance that anyone like me would have in saying 'I love wildlife, therefore you shouldn't do that.'"

So when asked why do it then, Hoffman answered simply: "For the animals."

Melissa Hoffman stands outside on her farm with a mountain in the background
Credit Liam Elder-Connors / VPR
Melissa Hoffman, founder of Sho Farm in Huntington, posted on Facebook about the number of bears that had been killed on her neighbor Tim Taft's property last year. The post generated many comments.

What started off a philosophical dispute between neighbors, has quickly became a focus for Protect Our Wildlife, an animal advocacy organization. The group sent a letter to the Legislature accusing the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife of lax enforcement of the bear harvesting law.

As far as the department is concerned, the Tafts have done nothing wrong. According to chief warden Col. Jason Batchelder, the Tafts have wardens check out the damage before killing bears and always contact the department when a bear is shot on their property.

There are about 5,000 bears in the state, and the population has grown in recent years. Bears being killed solely over corn damage is relatively rare, with only a few killed prior to the hunting season each year, according to Vermont Fish and Wildlife.

More from NENC — "As Black Bears Adapt To Humans In New England, Their Population Expands" [Nov. 4]

However last year was an outlier in Vermont, with 22 bears taken statewide in defense of corn. The department said last year, naturally occurring foods, like beech nuts, were scarce, which drove bears to cornfields like Taft's.

"If it was 10 bears a year, every year, we would start to think differently," Batchelder said. "And maybe we would have a bake sale and buy a fence and put it around his massive field and see if that would work, but I don't believe it would."

But Hoffman, the neighbor of the Tafts, said if farmers are going to grow corn they should acknowledge it attracts bears — and put up a fence.

"If your only answer is to kill every animal that comes to try take your corn which you've planted in their territory, that to me is not logical or responsible," she said. "If you can't fence it and protect it, don't plant it."

Cow in their pen in a barn.
Credit Liam Elder-Connors / VPR
Cows at Tim Taft's dairy farm in Huntington.

Down the road at his farm, Tim Taft said he looked at putting an electric fence around his 7.5 miles of corn field, but balked at the cost: an estimated $80,000. This year, Taft said, the bear damage wasn't too bad and they didn't have to shoot any bears.

He said when his name got published, the farm got some phone calls and emails that were upsetting. For Taft, it's hard not to take these criticisms personally; he's been working on this farm since he was a kid and he's proud of the family business.

"The things that I do, I do with pride and they're the exact things that some of these people think makes me a very bad person," Taft said. "And that is a collision that I can't figure out."

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