The trouble with co-existing: How a bad food year causes human bear conflicts to increase
Most of the brightly-colored leaves in the high country have fallen off the trees and blanketed Aspen’s streets and sidewalks, signaling a change of seasons. With winter looming, black bears are desperately bingeing on anything they can find — from the last of the berries to trash in neighborhood dumpsters — to fuel themselves for long months of winter dormancy.
Bears are eager to pack on pounds and find a nice place to rest for the winter. Daniela Kohl, founder of the Roaring Fork Bear Coalition, has been an advocate for decreasing human-bear conflict issues for years.
“The other day, somebody called me and said, ‘I better check my crawl space; I heard a noise,’” she said. “Right now, it is the time to secure and make sure your crawl space is safe and shut. Bears will basically come in, and they want to redecorate and remodel your basement or crawlspace with their twigs and branches.”
As heard at the town hall meeting hosted by the Colorado Bear Coalition, community members want to leave the bears alone. The meeting was held to create a dialogue between community members and Colorado Parks and Wildlife officers about the best practices to avoid human-bear conflicts. Some attendees claimed to co-exist with the bears in their neighborhoods. However, there is a caveat to co-existence: The public’s definition of it does not match a wildlife manager’s definition.
“From a wildlife manager’s perspective, co-existence isn’t just tolerating animals and allowing them to do whatever they want, wherever they want,” said CPW Area Manager Matt Yamashita. “It’s finding that balance between what is actually acceptable from a biological perspective versus what is acceptable on a social front.”
The human-bear conflict issues in Aspen are cyclical, and they are not going to get better without true human change, experts said. Black bears are smart and can adapt well to their environments. Ignoring a bear doesn’t make it go away. In fact, it sends the opposite message to the animal.
Kohl agrees that co-existence is a big word with many meanings. People think feeding the bears is co-existing with the bears, she said. But, really, putting food out can be a death sentence for a bear.
“If the whole time they’re in town — whether they’re in a trash can, crossing through a yard — if there’s no consequence for them being there, they will stay there because there’s food sources available,” Yamashita said. “A year like this, where there’s natural food failure, we see bears in town a lot.”
No repercussions for being in town means a mama bear can raise her cubs there. Why would she go somewhere else when the trash cans in someone’s yard are much easier to access than berries and nuts?
“Even if we gave them the opportunity to go and set up homes, someplace out in the woods tens, hundreds of miles away, they will choose to find the nearest civilization and exploit the same human-related food sources because that’s all they know,” he said.
Co-existing with that kind of animal is unnatural because that is not the natural state a bear exists in. Yamashita says this is where the biological factor comes in because there have to be checks and balances on how many animals are appropriate on the landscape.
A year like this would thin the population out on its own. If humans weren’t around at all — and nobody lived in Aspen, the Roaring Fork Valley was void of humans — there would be a lot of bears that would die,” he said.
What’s a year like this?
It’s a bad food year for the bears, Yamashita said, and it’s all thanks to Colorado’s substantial drought cycle dating back about a decade. Below-average winter precipitation paired with above-average summer temperatures have greatly affected bears’ food supplies. Even though there was decent monsoonal moisture this summer, the late spring frost killed off many of the leaves on fruit-producing plants.
In the summer months, bears feed on grasses, berries, leaves, and nuts, which he said are reliant on water. Without water, there is not enough vegetation in the area for bears to survive off of, forcing them into the trash cans in town.
“But, bears have found a way to circumvent that and have used humans as their crutch to get around that,” Yamashita said.
So, when the summer vegetation is not enough fuel for the bears, they head into town to feast on what they can find in trash cans and bird feeders. Instead of 25% of the population dying, they end up growing healthy enough to create a new generation of bears, he said. Twenty years ago, it was considered remarkable for a bear to have twins. Now, it is rare when a bear has only one cub. Bear populations are steadily increasing.
“They’re getting around what biologically is put in place by nature to control populations,” he said.
Heading into town for a snack tends to work out in the bears’ favor. Trash cans and bird feeders offer higher caloric intake with less energy expended to attain it.
In 2021, CPW received 317 bear reports in Pitkin County from April 1 through Sept. 30. In 2022, Pitkin County received 509 reports in the same time period. In 2021, CPW received a total, for the year, of 510 bear reports in Pitkin County — the second highest in the state. Garfield County had the most, with 525 total reports.
Kohl recently attended the sixth International Human Bear Conflict Workshop in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. The workshop brought together bear specialists from across the globe, and she said it was a great learning experience. Human-bear conflicts happen all around the world, and she was able to talk with other people who are passionate about resolving the issues.
“The landscape might change, but the problem is the same,” she said. “We have to change our behavior. It’s not just the animals’ fault. We are moving into everywhere they live.”
Why are they hungry?
Although it is often referred to as hibernation, bears enter a state of physical or mental inactivity known as torpor in the winter.
The length of torpor is completely dictated by food availability. As the berries and natural food sources die off, bears bodies begin to shut down. They enter their dens, and their heart rate and respiration rate slows down. Their bodies burn fewer calories, allowing them to make it through the winter without waking up to snack.
When a bear heads into its den is also dependent on food. Typically, it starts in late November. As food sources die off in the fall, bears cannot fuel their bodies and instinctively, they begin to shut down. However, with trash being a constant in this mountain town, there are some bears that have discovered they don’t need to enter torpor because there is a consistent food source for them.
“They wake up in the spring, and they need to put on as many calories as quickly as they can, just to get their body kick started. That cycles into the early summer phase. Early summer is where they’re focusing on grasses and sedges because those are generally the first things to green up in the spring. Berries don’t come into play until mid to late summer,” he said.
There is no way to predict whether the berry crop will be worthwhile for the bears until mid to late July. Once the season begins to change to fall, bears are desperate to eat as many calories as they can as quickly as they can. Bears need to switch to calorie-dense and protein-rich foods to prepare for a winter of inactivity. This period is called hyperphagia.
“If you were to go and find a bear in its den, where we get a period of four or five warm days in the middle of winter, those bears will wake up, they’ll leave the den then wander around, they’ll see that there’s no food, and they’ll go back to sleep. They’ll go kind of hanging out in their den and their body metabolism will stay slowed down the entire period that they’re in their den,” said Yamashita.
There are bears out there that do not go into dens for the winter because they have discovered trash is a year-round food source. As winter approaches, it is important to continue bear awareness. Trash should be locked away and ground-level windows and doors should be closed and locked.
“By taking very simple steps, we can make a difference. We can be more mindful and respectful towards them,” Kohl said.
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