Coloradans face rising municipal bear activity

 A bear and cub sort through trash near a home. [Photo courtesy of Colorado Parks & Wildlife]

A bear and cub sort through trash near a home. [Photo courtesy of Colorado Parks & Wildlife]

By Raleigh Burleigh, KDNK

Last year, a late frost knocked out many of the season’s chokecherries, service berries and acorns. Then, a dry summer exacerbated the flowers, forbs and grasses. To the average citizen this may have gone unnoticed, except that bear activity spiked.

In 2017, 190 bears were euthanized by Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), a number much higher than average and in direct correlation to the lack of natural foods.  

In Carbondale, Colorado, an estimated 12 bears roamed the municipality by August, an unprecedented number according to John Groves, a district wildlife manager for CPW.

Quote: “In the last 13, 14 years I’ve been here, this is some of the highest activity we’ve seen in town. Usually it’s one or two bears per season, this year I know of probably at least a dozen bears in town.”

Groves appealed to the Carbondale Board of Town Trustees, warning that the lack of proper trash containment would result in deaths among the bears.. .

Quote: “If we have to trap and handle a bear, it may not be dead today but probably within a month or two months that bear is going to be back getting into trouble again and the bear is gonna die.”

Commonly referred to as the “two strike” policy, if a bear has been captured and handled twice by CPW, then it “shall be destroyed.”

 A young bear enjoys some urban snacking. [Photo courtesy of Colorado Parks and Wildlife]

A young bear enjoys some urban snacking. [Photo courtesy of Colorado Parks and Wildlife]

In the nearby city of Aspen, bear incidents, including frequent home and vehicle break-ins, have become a regular part of summer.

Quote: “As you can see, they’re coming along really well…” “These chokecherries?” “Yep, yep. I’ve been watching these. They’re coming good and then here’s your service berry here and those are looking pretty good as well.”

For Kurtis Tesch, a wildlife manager whose district includes Aspen, it is routine to check on natural food sources throughout the spring…

Quote: “There’s some oak brush down there too, which is doing well also. The problem we’re going to face this year is if we don’t get any rain soon, those berries are going to shrivel up and we’re not going to get the production that we need.”

Black bears, storing fat for hibernation, can eat up to 30 pounds a day and are highly incentivized by foods found in and around human residences.

Quote: “They’re not dumb animals, they’re smart! So they’re obviously going to sit down and eat that out of the trash can or whatever and get the calories that way where they can just sit there and do it rather than picking berries on dozens of different bushes all around.”

Following the dramatic summer of 2017, the Town of Carbondale has since replaced all municipal trash receptacles with bear resistant containers and the City of Aspen has more than doubled fines for wildlife harassment. Still, I couldn’t help but ask: What other approaches are being taken? With bad bear years on the rise and some bears recorded as foregoing hibernation altogether, the occurrence human-bear interactions are becoming more common. When natural foods are nonexistent, is there any alternative to locking out the starving bears?

Quote: “The city was hesitant about it but then when I went to the open space department and spoke with the head plant ecologist, she thought it was a fantastic idea.”

That’s Brenda Lee, founder of the Boulder Bear Coalition. Thanks to the unique characteristic of city-owned open space surrounding Boulder, the non-profit organization is experimenting with planting a native food buffer for wildlife…

“We’ve planted for two years now, in the spring, over 200 rootstock to provide a natural food source for bears and other wildlife moving through. Chokecherries, wild plums, rose, currants…”

A variety of plants were selected to offset the effects of early and late freezes and they’re beginning to show promise.

Quote: “The plants have taken root and a lot of them are looking quite good. We don’t see a lot of fruit yet. That is something that will take probably another year.”

As expanding human development and climate change alter habitat conditions for the estimated 19,000 black bears living in Colorado, creative initiatives like establishing a native food buffer zone could help save the desperate animals from risking conflict with humans.

“Bears are hungry. That’s really what it comes down to. They just want to eat.”

For Western Slope Resources Reporting, I’m Raleigh Burleigh.

 

Katie Klingsporn