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Thursday, January 12, 2006

Four Black Bears Are Slain in Napa Valley as War Erupts Between Vineyards and Wildlife

"I don't see much difference between throwing a sandwich out the window for the bears in Yosemite Park and inviting them to dinner here by putting grapes out for them to eat."

-- Ann Curtis, Aetna Springs Golf Course

A war has broken out in Napa Valley between greedy and vicious vineyard owners and defenseless wildlife with the former hellbent upon exterminating any of the latter who dare to venture near their precious vines. Four black bears, two males and two females, became the latest casualties in this escalating cycle of violence when they were shot and killed by federal agents last fall after they were caught feeding on grapes belonging to the Aetna Springs Vineyard in the Pope Valley section of Napa County.

Under a barbaric pro-capitalist, anti-wildlife statute, the California Department of Fish and Game is required to issue an extermination permit to any vineyard owner who can prove that his or her vines have been damaged by animals. In the past, state and federal officials have acted at the behest of vineyard owners in order to slaughter at least two mountain lions as well as an indeterminate number of deer, turkeys, and wild pigs.

As the vineyard owners' lust for profits grows they keep expanding their operations into the mountains and wilderness where they increasingly come into conflict with wildlife. Aetna Springs owner Paul Maroon complained to the San Francisco Chronicle in its December 26th edition that since neither fences nor loud noises were sufficient to keep the bears away he had no other choice but to have them killed.

Bill Dakin, a retired San Ramon Valley Fire Department captain whose property is situated adjacent to the vineyard, begs to differ. In particular, he told the Chronicle that Maroon could have either electrified the fence around his vineyard or, better still, just accepted the fact that the bears were there first. Dakin's reasoning is buttressed by the fact that the previous owner raised grapes on that property for fifteen years without ever having to kill any bears. "All the time we've been here, we've kept quiet about the bears because we were afraid hunters would hear about them," he said. "We never dreamed this would happen. It just seems like such a crime -- they are such neat animals. There's got to be a better way."

The greed-inspired killings have left his wife, Gail, disconsolate. "It makes me sick," she said. "I've cried every day for the last four months." The photo at the top of the page was taken by Bill using a remote camera while the picture at the bottom of the page is of the couple standing alongside the fence where the bruins would slip into the Aetna Springs Vineyard.

Equally outraged is Ann Curtis of the nearby Aetna Springs Golf Course who has aptly labeled the killings as "wine for blood" and "life for profit." "It isn't just the bears. Herds of deer have been killed over the same thing," she said. "To come into a wildlife area and then kill off the wildlife is wrong. I don't see much difference between throwing a sandwich out the window for bears in Yosemite Park and inviting them to dinner here by putting grapes out for them to eat."

Not all wine country vineyard operators are as greedy and bloodthirsty as Maroon. Jerre Sears, owner of Black Sears Vineyards on Howell Mountain, told the Chronicle that she and other grape growers on the mountain try to live in harmony with wildlife and accordingly simply write off the grapes that they devour as a legitimate expense for doing business within their habitat. "We've had our vineyard for twenty years and we've had a bear in our vineyard every year. We feel it's just part of life, of nature, so we share," she said.

Mother Earth, the animals, and people in general would be far better off if more people shared Sears' philosophy; sadly, that is not the case. Multimillionaire winemakers like Maroon obviously have plenty of money to spread around and are thus able to get state and federal officials to do their dirty work for them. Also, environmental groups such as the Sierra Club who prefer farmers and hunters to developers often turn a blind eye to the crimes that these two groups commit. All of this needs to change. In particular, environmentalists who cozy up to farmers and hunters at the expense of animals are every bit as destructive of animal life as the developers that they excoriate.

Photos: Bill Dakin (black bear) and Kurt Rogers, San Francisco Chronicle (the Dakins).