One small, bitter and surprisingly tasty crabapple at a time, Orion Bellorado and Ian McGregor plucked away would-be treats for bears and moose outside the entrance to Wilson Elementary School.
The critters are desirable residents of wild Jackson Hole, but not quite as wanted in a place like residential Wilson — especially mere feet from hundreds of grade-schoolers. Moose, a sometimes ornery animal, could do quite a number on clusters of curious youngsters who didn’t know any better, the do-gooding apple pickers said.
“Pure innovative work,” McGregor said while on the job Oct. 4.
Bellorado and McGregor are entrepreneurs and cider makers, and they were on scene because of a concerted effort to rid Jackson Hole of its crabapples come fall — when food-crazed bears tend to descend into developed areas. The eye-pleasing flowering trees produce seemingly innocuous and edible fruit, but they are a major source of conflict for wildlife managers.
“It’s definitely a significant attractant come the fall, especially on years when we don’t have a good berry crop,” said Mike Boyce, a large carnivore biologist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
“On a bad berry year, I would venture I get 20 to 30 reports of crabapple tree damage in the fall,” he said. “It’s fairly significant — it’s one of our leading causes of bear conflict here in Teton County.”
Part of Teton Conservation District wildlife specialist Morgan Graham’s job is to come up with solutions to these types of problems, but hiring crabapple pickers was far from his first idea.
One thought that fell flat was helping pay to replace broken bearproof garbage cans in outlying parts of the county. Then, after talking with Game and Fish, he thought up a cost-share to replace 60 crabapple trees from a neighborhood with chronic conflict. Graham attended a homeowners association meeting and made the pitch.
“Some people supported it,” Graham said, “but there was some very vocal folks who didn’t want to deal with the cost on their end.”
“It was banging your head against the wall trying to get something done,” he said. “Ultimately, probably the third or fourth idea was to partner with Orion.”
A math teacher who on the side runs Roots Kitchen and Cannery, Bellorado was getting into pressing fruit and making ciders out of personal curiosity — and he has friends cut from similar cloth.
“We’re big enthusiasts of making things that are as local as possible,” he said.
Essentially all of Jackson Hole’s crabapple trees sprout from private land, and a big part of the job in the early going has been securing permission. There’ve been instances where getting the OK to pick trees has been as simple as a knock on the door and a question.
“Especially once they start falling and rotting,” Bellorado said, “it doesn’t take very much.”
But other times it has proven cumbersome or impossible. Working with homeowners associations representing landowners distributed around the country has been less than straightforward. Some residents were less than pleased that Bellorado and McGregor’s apple-removing offer is the result of a taxpayer-funded contract that will allow them to bill up to $14,000.
“Some of the nos we got, they were strong nos,” Bellorado said. “Definitely, if the conversation continued, I would have been asked to vacate the property.”
The strong feelings, he said, came as a shock.
Bellorado and his partners set their sights on about 70 trees in the pilot year of the Conservation District partnership. They’ve identified about 300 trees, but many of those were already being picked by residents or grow in places where they don’t have permission.
There’s also the time element. Crabapple trees can be prolific, and big, productive trees take a while to pick. Afterward, the crew has to figure what to do with the fruit, which at times has proven disagreeable with the palate.
“Some are nasty,” McGregor said. “Think of the worst thing you can eat.”
Other times it’s made for tasty cider. But for a host of reasons, Bellorado’s not pursuing a commercial bear-friendly cider business at this time. There are Wyoming distillery laws to navigate, the need for a commercial kitchen and the near-impossible hurdle of harvesting and juicing inconsistent-tasting fruit that sporadically ripens all around the valley in small groves.
When only a few trees are being picked, they don’t bear enough fruit for cider making to be worthwhile. A 17-gallon tote bag makes only about 3.5 gallons of raw cider, Bellorado said.
The lack of scale came into play a week ago at Wilson Elementary, when Bellorado, McGregor and Graham stripped four trees of their crabapples in just over an hour, filling a couple of chest coolers with the harvest. Rather than the kitchen, the tart apples were bound for the trough — specifically, to feed Haderlie Farms’ pigs in Star Valley.
It’s safe to say Game and Fish’s Boyce is pleased that the crabapples are no longer on the landscape, regardless of the fruits’ destination. It’s a program he supports and helped steer in its infancy, and he encouraged landowners to participate. That means: Pick your crabapples or call Bellorado (690-4634).
“That’s the only way you can deal with it,” Boyce said, “other than removing the trees.”