Black bear-human conflicts on the rise in Roaring Fork Valley
Colorado Parks and Wildlife seeks public feedback on updated bear management plan
Things found in trees throughout the nation: birds, squirrels, kittens and kites.
For the Roaring Fork Valley?
Add black bears to the list.
“We’ve been getting calls about a bear hanging in an apple tree at 10th Street and Bennett Avenue (in Glenwood Springs) for some time,” said Dan Cacho, a district wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “We’ve been monitoring the situation, and on Thursday, we got a report the bear was acting differently — lethargic.”
When Cacho approached the bear cub, it made no effort to flee, preferring instead to continue its midday nap.
“It let me stand basically right under it,” Cacho said.
The cub was born this year and frequented the neighborhood, but residents didn’t recall seeing it with a mother, he said.
“Cubs being abandoned by their mothers isn’t uncommon in the valley for a variety of reasons — mothers getting killed in traffic is a big one,” Cacho explained. “This one was undersized, and without a mother it’s not likely it would have survived the winter.”
Cacho tranquilized the cub, removed it from the tree and transported it to the Pauline S. Schneegas Wildlife Foundation in Silt, where staff will work to rehabilitate the bear for release into the wild early next year.
Apple trees aren’t the locales bursting with bears.
Strolling around downtown Glenwood Springs, a person could find a bear just about anywhere, especially at night.
“Throughout this summer, I could go out on any given night and find anywhere from one and up to six different bears in the downtown area,” Cacho said. “The primary attractant is people’s unsecured trash.”
More bears in urban areas results in more conflicts between humans and bears, CPW Area Wildlife Manager Matt Yamashita said.
“Historically, we would have never considered the downtown corridor as primary bear habitat,” he said. “That’s changing now as bears have become so reliant on human-sourced food to supplement their diet.”
Two decades ago, a black bear attacking a human was nearly unheard of in Colorado.
But in just the last year, three people were injured by black bear attacks in the Aspen area alone, Yamashita said.
With human-bear conflicts on the rise, CPW is preparing to update its bear management plan, and they are asking for public input on the proposed management alternatives.
CPW’s definition of conflicts includes an array of interactions, many of which are nonviolent; however, nearly all conflicts pose a danger to either the bears or the people involved, Yamashita explained.
Population growth, urban sprawl and blurred lines between the places people live and natural wildlife habitats all contribute to increased bear activity in non-traditional settings, such as Cacho’s tree-napping bear cub.
In 2019, CPW started tracking human-bear conflicts electronically, greatly increasing the agency’s reporting accuracy and providing them a base data set to build new management plans upon.
“Prior to 2019, we used hard-copy forms — the kind with carbon copies underneath — for reporting bear conflicts,” Yamashita said. “So, there was a higher error rate, because some data got lost in translation.”
Not including bear sightings or the three physical attacks in Aspen, CPW recorded about 408 human-bear conflicts in 2020 within a region that includes the Roaring Fork Valley. So far this year, 451 conflicts have been recorded, Yamashita said.
Based out of Glenwood Springs, Yamashita and his team manage black bears in a region that begins in Glenwood Canyon and extends east beyond Vail and Red Cliff, with southern borders beyond Aspen and Marble and stretching north past Gypsum. Counting the exact number of bears in an area is challenging, but CPW estimates Yamashita’s bear management unit is home to more than 1,000 black bears. Although CPW receives annual grizzly bear sightings, Yamashita said the agency has not substantiated any of the claims and considers black bears to be the only known ursine species in the state.
Throwing out the textbook
Female black bears, called sows, give birth to litters of 1-2 cubs a year — according to the textbooks, Yamashita said.
Spring is mating season, but he said the sows’ bodies delay the pregnancy until late fall, when their bodies decide whether food was plentiful enough to feed both the sow and the cubs during the winter months. In a natural cycle, lean years would cause some of the bear population to starve, and sows would give birth less often, regulating the bear population.
Bears have adapted to their human neighbors, however, and because of the prevalence of human food sources, such as small livestock, garbage, fruit trees and some landscaping plants, such as Gambel oak, serviceberries and chokecherries, lean years are rarer than ever, Yamashita said.
“Locally, we don’t see those textbook litters,” he said. “There’s really no such thing as a one-cub litter around here. Two is standard, three is common and some years, we are even seeing four cubs.”
Supplementing bear diets with human-provided sources is problematic, but in some areas, those unnatural sources are so plentiful that Yamashita said bears have reversed their diets — relying first on human-sourced food and foraging second.
Although not as common as dumpster diving, black bears also go after small-medium livestock, including sheep, pigs, goats and calves, which further separates them from their natural food chain.
“If we can eliminate the food sources or prevent them from being able to access those food sources — like bear-proof trash cans in downtown Glenwood Springs,” Yamashita said, “we can eliminate that substantial factor that influences bear populations.”
Cacho said working with local governments to reduce bear attractants and educate the public about being better stewards of bear habitat is an important facet of the proposed updates to the bear management plan.
“Glenwood actually has a bear ordinance for trash, and they do enforce it,” he said. “We’d like to get other communities on board with similar measures.”
More hunters, less bears
When most people think of CPW managing bear populations, they picture game wardens capturing, euthanizing or transplanting “nuisance bears,” Yamashita said.
“Even during bad bear-conflict years, the numbers we relocate or euthanize does not have a significant impact on the population,” he said.
One of the agency’s most significant tools for managing wildlife populations is selling hunting licenses, Yamashita said.
“By allowing hunters to harvest certain wildlife species, we can remove portions of the population that we have no other way to remove,” he said.
Depending on whether a wildlife population needs to be reduced or boosted, CPW can increase or decrease the number of hunting licenses sold throughout targeted areas.
While hunting is effective at managing deer and elk populations, CPW hasn’t experienced the same success when applied to bear management in the past.
“They haven’t always been as desirable to hunters as other harvest species,” Yamashita said. “It didn’t matter how many licenses you put on the table, there was a finite level of interest.”
In an attempt to increase interest in the sport, CPW decreased the cost of bear hunting licenses for out-of-state hunters a few years ago from about $300 per license to about $100, Yamashita said.
“What we’ve seen that we didn’t expect is we now have hunting parties coming here from other states to only hunt bears,” he explained. “A lot of those hunters are successful.”
With bear hunting interest on the rise, CPW wants the public to weigh in on best practices for bear management going forward.
Members of the public can submit feedback on the management plan, which proposes multiple strategies for managing bear populations through hunting and reducing the availability of human food sources, by completing an online survey before Nov. 10, which can be found on CPW’s herd management plans web page.
Reporter Ike Fredregill can be reached at 970-384-9154 or by email at email@example.com.
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