Division of Wildlife plays tag with bears
Post Independent Staff
The overpowering, noxious smell of rancid grease and rotting fruit wafted out of the steel-mesh cage like a bad day at the garbage dump.
It was just the bouquet Sharon Baruch-Mordo hopes will attract a bear. Primed and ready, the trap is set on a flat spot next to Mitchell Creek just west of Glenwood Springs.
Baruch-Mordo, a graduate student in wildlife biology at Colorado State University, is a part of a five-year study of human and bear conflicts in the Roaring Fork Valley.
The study is collaboration of the Colorado Division of Wildlife, the USDA Animal Health Inspection Service’s National Wildlife Research Center in Fort Collins and CSU.
Headed up by Stewart Breck, research wildlife biologist with the Wildlife Research Center, the study will focus on conflicts between bears and humans in Glenwood Springs and Aspen. Breck has conducted similar studies on bears in Yosemite National Park in California and Mexican wolves in Arizona.
Both cities have become prime bear habitat over the years, and efforts by DOW to educate people about how to live with bears has not been effective, Breck said. The DOW developed a get-tough bear policy in response to the escalating problem of bears breaking into homes, raiding garbage cans and invading barbecues. First-time offenders ” for example, nuisance bears who break into a home ” are tagged and relocated. The second time they offend, the bears will be destroyed.
In 2004, 49 bears were killed in the Eagle and Roaring Fork valleys, either by landowners, as roadkills or killed through DOW’s bear policy. This year only seven have been killed.
The idea of the study is to discover “how to manage this problem without killing bears,” Breck said.
Also involved in the study is terrestrial wildlife biologist John Broderick, who works out of the Glenwood Springs DOW office and is an expert on bear behavior.
So far the DOW’s effort to convince people they’re living in “bear country” has been a failure. Run-ins with bears will continue to escalate especially as the human population of the valley grows, Breck said.
A tough year in 2000
In 2000 severe springtime frosts cut down on the amount of berries in the mountains. It’s one of the main foods that bears rely on to bulk up for their winter sleep. With no berries, to munch on, bears spent a lot of time in Glenwood and Aspen looking for food. DOW managers spent the majority of their time that summer answering calls from people with bear problems, Broderick said.
Despite the DOW’s efforts to remind people to keep their garbage cans indoors, to take down their bird feeders at night, to keep the pet food inside and the barbecue clean, the human-bear collisions continue.
“The message is there, we’re sending the signal, but it’s not being received,” Broderick said.
In fact, there’s a real division among people in the valley about living with bears. Some people don’t want the DOW or anyone “messing with their bears,” who are welcome neighbors, Broderick said. And there are some who demand the DOW remove “their bears” from a homeowner’s premises.
This summer, six bears were trapped and fitted with special collars armed with a Global Positioning System and VHF radio for tracking. While the VHF allows wildlife biologists to locate a bear within a given area, the GPS can pinpoint a bear on the ground.
A female bear dubbed Female 919 was trapped near Aspen and collared on July 10. Her movements were tracked until Aug. 11. That day, Baruch-Mordo found the bear by tracking it and triggered a remote device that automatically dropped the collar, allowing the bear to go on its way.
After retrieving the collar, Baruch-Mordo plotted the GPS data contained on a chip in the collar on a map of Aspen. Female 919 spent a lot of time on the south side of town roaming the streets. But on July 25, according to the geographic information system maps created by Baruch-Mordo, Female 919 swept up on to Smuggler Mountain. That day calls to Aspen DOW about problem bears dropped off dramatically, Broderick said, probably because the berries bear love to eat were peaking on Smuggler Mountain.
“When the chokecherries and serviceberries come on, the bears are not spending any time in town,” but up in the hills where the berries are, he said.
Such fine-tuned tracking will help researchers understand bears’ movements in and around Glenwood Springs and Aspen.
Next year, the study will begin in earnest with a projected 20 bears, 10 in Glenwood Springs and 10 in Aspen, to be trapped and collared. They’ll be followed 24 hours a day by Baruch-Mordo.
Learning how bears live in the same environment as humans will hopefully give the researchers some ideas about how to make it less hospitable for the animals.
“We’re entering a new phase of bear management,” Breck said. “It’s not my vision to see bears hanging out in Aspen eating garbage.”
More than being a nuisance for humans, having bears dependent on humans for some of their food supply is not good for the bears.
“It’s a self-fulfilling axiom ” a fed bear is a dead bear,” Broderick said.
Contact Donna Gray: 945-8515, ext. 510
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