Forest Service Column: Welcome to bear country |

Forest Service Column: Welcome to bear country

A young bear hangs out next to Highway 133 outside of Redstone.
Colleen O’Neil / Post Independent |

Even if you don’t know it, you’re in bear country.

All summer, you’ve been while walking downtown, barbecuing in the backyard and hiking or camping on White River National Forest amidst a large population of bears. Black bears live in Garfield, Pitkin, and Eagle County and throughout the central mountains of Colorado.

Male black bears weigh 350-550 pounds. Females weigh 250-350 pounds. An adult bear is 4-6 feet from nose to tail. Black bears can vary in color from jet black to light cinnamon, although black is the color most frequently encountered. Bears have long claws on front and back feet and large teeth similar to humans for an omnivorous diet. Their sense of smell is excellent. There are no brown or grizzly bears in Colorado.

In the Roaring Fork Valley, bear density is among the highest in Colorado. According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, their density may approach one bear per square mile. That’s a lot of bears, and the numbers may still be on the rise. Across White River National Forest, bears are in very close proximity to areas used by visitors and overnight campers. Visitors need to be aware of the presence of bears, precautions required when recreating in bear country, and the potential danger posed by these large wild animals.

What are the dangers?

Bears are very strong; capable of ripping open doors and windows. They are also intelligent and have a high capacity to learn behaviors. Their claws and teeth are very sharp. They also can easily develop a taste for human food and garbage.

What precautions are needed in bear country?

First, raise your awareness and become educated on how to be safe around bears. Be alert in aspen forests, near streams, in oakbrush and when camping at established campsites; these are areas visited by bears.

More important than anything, use leave-no-trace practices when camping to avoid attracting bears. This primarily involves proper food storage and storing or removing trash. In the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, there are mandatory regulations for storing all food, garbage, and attractants at developed campgrounds, at designated camp sites on Lincoln Creek road and Upper Castle Creek and within Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. Use food lockers and bear-resistant trash bins if available or place these items out of sight in your locked car, and use a hard-sided bear canister when backpacking.

Remember to never feed wildlife. A fed bear is a dead bear.

Due to the high number of encounters with food-conditioned bears at Crater Lake, camping there is currently prohibited. This is the result of some people not being careful and allowing bears to eat human food or garbage.

What should you do if you encounter a bear?

Most encounters with an aggressive black bear involve a bear in search of food or garbage, or a food-conditioned bear. A food -conditioned bear may approach you closely, unafraid of your presence. Happenstance encounters seldom lead to aggression. Signs of aggression are eye contact with you, laid back ears, lowered head, and clacking jaws. An aggressive bear may charge at you.

If you encounter an aggressive bear, face the bear and slowly back away. Talk or make noise to signal you are human and in control. Raise your arms or otherwise appear bigger. If charged, stand your ground and immediately appear bigger, tougher and more confident than ever before. If knocked over, fight back, preferably with solid objects or anything until the bear gets off you. Then get up and slowly back away. DO NOT RUN, but leave the area.

For more information, visit keyword “bear.”

Phil Nyland is the District Wildlife Biologist for the Aspen and Sopris Ranger Districts. Contact him at 970-963-2266.

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