Bear conflicts rise; relocation efforts iffy
As bears begin to fatten up for winter hibernation, 2016 has already seen more conflicts with humans in our region than last year.
“We can typically count on being busy with bears during the summer,” said Parks and Wildlife District Manager Dan Cacho. “They’re constantly finding food sources around people, and the bears are usually on the losing end of that.”
Indeed, so far this year, Parks and Wildlife has relocated six bears and put down 17 in Management Area 8, which includes Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and most of Pitkin and Eagle counties. Last year saw three moved and 11 killed, while 2014 had 21 moved and 19 killed. Parks and Wildlife officials generally have a two-strikes policy with bears, tagging their ears and relocating them after a troublesome encounter, and putting them down only after a second such encounter or an immediate threat to people.
“It’s statewide,” Cacho said. “We’re starting to have issues in places we haven’t had before. I think that’s fairly telling.”
The conflicts are the consequence of rising bear populations as the state’s also-rising human population pushes farther into the woods and hills. The state is running out of places to relocate bears, a system that has proved to be of questionable value.
“Relocation gets pretty complicated for us,” Cacho said. “We need to relocate them in the state of Colorado, in appropriate habitat, ideally at least 100 miles away” from where they had conflict with humans.
“Really all you’re doing then is passing the buck,” he added. “We don’t know what our success rate is, but we see a lot of red ear tags end up having to be put down, because they’re causing issues in another area.”
Sometimes, they return to the same area from which they were captured. According to Parks and Wildlife public information officer Mike Porras, there have been several reports of bears making it back before the officer does.
“We’re talking about an animal that can learn how to ride a bicycle,” he said. “They can travel 100 miles in an evening, they have excellent memories and they know where to go.”
Even if they don’t go right back to the same behavior, it’s hard to predict the bear population wherever they’re dropped off. Placing a yearling in a 400-pound dominant male’s territory is pretty much a death sentence.
“It would be preferable if we could nip it in the bud from the beginning,” Cacho said. “We definitely need folks to let us know early on when that behavior is starting so we can encourage them to stay out of town and away from people. We try to get folks to take care of the issues themselves, but that can be pretty challenging.”
Ideally, homeowners themselves should make an effort to make bears feel unwelcome. Making a lot of noise from the safety of your home the first time you see a bear might do more good than rubber buckshot and tasers would later.
“The longer they’re exposed to people, the quicker they lose their fear, and that can often lead to worse behavior,” Cacho said. “If we have bears that are used to coming into town, it doesn’t really matter what the natural forage is doing.”
Right now, wild food supplies are a bit low, with a patchy berry crop and acorns not quite ripe. That’s not a good reason to feed them, though, nor is a better photo opp.
“I think feeding happens more than we will ever know, and it needs to stop,” Cacho said. “When people do that, we will have to deal with that bear. Folks think that they’re helping, but it’s hurting them.”
Leaving your trash unsecured is an invitation as well, and since last year it’s also illegal in Glenwood Springs.
“I’m very happy with the response from the city with the trash ordinance,” Cacho said. “The key component is enforcement, and that’s where I think Glenwood Springs has done a really great job.”
It wasn’t always such an issue.
“Our officers used to go and run at a chance to see a bear,” Cacho said. “Now, I’ve handled five different bears in the same day.”
That’s probably a function of the climbing bear population — estimated at 17,000 to 20,000 in Colorado — as well as more building and recreation in their habitat.
The state has responded by issuing more hunting licenses, but that’s unlikely to fix the problem entirely.
“If you live in Glenwood Springs, you’re probably going to see bears,” Cacho said. “We don’t have man-hunting animals roaming around town, but you should be aware that bears or mountain lions could be there and take the appropriate steps to make sure you’re OK.”
“It just boils down to being responsible with wildlife,” Porras agreed. “Human health and safety is our primary concern.”
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Glenwood’s Sunlight Mountain Resort opens full-time for the season Friday with all three of its lifts providing access to expanded terrain. Oh, and it’s supposed to snow!