Black bears: More than meets the eye |

Black bears: More than meets the eye

Janice Kurbjun
Summit County Correspondent
Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Special to the Daily/Keystone EMS

To Gail Marshall, coordinator for Summit County’s Bear Aware program, bears aren’t always the vicious creatures – or the pestering trash hounds – they’re often made out to be.

“The more I know about [bears], the more I want to learn,” Marshall said, which is part of the job of being the coordinator for the Bear Aware program, which goes door-to-door in areas with bear problems, educating humans on how to coexist with the critters. She said bears tend to be more fearful of humans than humans are of them, but interactions between the species can be dangerous – bears do have the capacity to kill.

“I ended up learning a lot about garbage,” Marshall said about when she first started the chapter of the Colorado Division of Wildlife program in 1998. She said her role really came into play a few years later when drought came through the area and bears were ravaging trash cans for food and were needing to be put down. She and other volunteers visited many neighborhoods experiencing the problems.

Throughout the years, Marshall has become so smitten with bears and their biology that she has planned vacations around them to learn more.

“I was trying to decide between seeing panda bears or polar bears next,” she said, and had opted for polar bears, before her dog got sick.

She was slated to go to the Arctic Circle with the Great Bear Foundation out of Missoula, Mont., last fall, where she would have learned about the tundra and polar bears that make the area home.

“I like to come back and do presentations on these animals,” tying in information about the black bears found locally, she said.

Marshall has held a bear, touched its paws and pads and even heard one cry as a neighbor threw rocks at it to deter it from digging in the trash.

She said mother black bears are still in their dens for winter, but now is the time the cubs are being born. In Summit County, mother bears generally have a single cub or twins, district wildlife manager Sean Shepherd said.

They’re born furless and about the size of a chipmunk and they suckle until spring, when they’re the size of a small puppy and can start heading outdoors, Shepherd said. The breeding process is interesting because it involves delayed implantation – the egg doesn’t settle into the uterus unless mother bear has eaten enough food and has enough fat to support the embryo.

The number of cubs generally reflects the habitat, Shepherd added. Summit County’s fringe habitat – harsh winters and short summers – means fewer cubs compared to ideal habitats in Aspen and Trinidad. The best bear habitat in Summit County is south of Green Mountain Reservoir, in areas in the mountains above Heeney.

“They need country with nuts and berries” that are high-energy and relatively easy to gather, Shepherd said. “We don’t have the diversity. We don’t have oak … bears love those things. They’re high energy.”

They also eat insects and grubs, but are generally sold on vegetable matter – they’ll eat a dead fawn or other meat, but they don’t generally chase down or surprise their prey.

When they get into trash, “they’re just counting calories,” Shepherd said. “They’re just built for it,” particularly in the fall, when they’re preparing to den.

“They are a pretty unique animal,” Shepherd said. “Even though they’re getting into people’s trash … they have their own intrinsic value.”

Shepherd and Marshall listed some of their favorite black bear traits. They:

• Eat a high-fat diet but don’t develop heart disease – making them a research subject for scientists.

• Are being studied for travel in space, as they rest for months on end but don’t lose muscle mass.

• Have long-term memories and will remember where food is and continue to return. They’ll also watch a human open doors and release a car door latch themselves.

• Have good eyesight, but, like humans, can develop eye issues such as near- and far-sightedness.

• Smell more keenly than dogs.

• Change their fur color according to their environment. A darker color is seen in Summit County, where tree bark is darker, than in Grand Junction, where the surrounding environment is lighter in color. Black bears can also be brown, blonde or cinnamon in color.

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