Bears are be­ing killed be­cause they’re los­ing their fear of hu­mans

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Bruce Finley The Den­ver Post

Wildlife man­agers and home­own­ers have killed at least 34 bears this sum­mer, re­flect­ing the bears’ grow­ing re­liance on hu­man-de­rived food. »

Colorado wildlife man­agers and home­own­ers have killed at least 34 bears so far this sum­mer, re­flect­ing the bears’ grow­ing re­liance on hu­man-de­rived food amid a sea­sonal short­age of for­age in some ar­eas.

This surge in what the man­agers call “lethal re­movals” builds on a pat­tern in Colorado, where peo­ple kill more than 1,000 bears a year. Hunters killed 1,051 bears in 2015 and 933 in 2016, Colorado Parks and Wildlife data show. Gov­ern­ment wildlife man­agers and landown­ers kill ad­di­tional bears deemed dan­ger­ous; last year, 334 bears were killed — 66 by state wildlife of­fi­cials. At least 77 bears died last year when hit by ve­hi­cles.

No­body is com­fort­able with what’s hap­pen­ing with bears, the largest sur­viv­ing car­ni­vores in the West. Some wildlife man­agers point to re­cent dry con­di­tions and short­ages of nat­u­ral food that may be driv­ing bears into cities. But there is ev­i­dence that some bears fac­ing ur­ban­iza­tion of their habi­tat are grow­ing ac­cus­tomed to eat­ing hu­man food in trash cans, camp­sites, cars and homes.

Even when nat­u­ral foods are suf­fi­cient, about 32 per­cent of bears on Colorado’s Front Range still ate hu­man food, a 2016 study led by CPW bi­ol­o­gist Mathew All­dredge con­cluded. In western Colorado, 20 per­cent of bears still ate hu­man food. The re­searchers an­a­lyzed hair and blood from bears killed by hunters to de­ter­mine their di­ets.

“We’re re­ceiv­ing more re­ports of bears in­ves­ti­gat­ing peo­ple, get­ting closer to peo­ple than we nor­mally would ex­pect,” said Matt Thorpe, a CPW area wildlife man­ager in Durango (pop­u­la­tion 20,000), a strong­hold for bears. “They’re not demon­strat­ing that nat­u­ral fear of hu­mans that we usu­ally see.”

Up to 50 peo­ple a day are call­ing the south­west re­gional of­fice and re­port­ing prob­lem­atic bear be­hav­ior. In the Durango area, an early lush spring gave way to a June 10 freeze and hot dry spells, promis­ing fewer forbs, acorns and berries.

A woman in Bay­field re­ported a bear chas­ing her chil­dren. She told CPW of­fi­cials she yelled at the bear and tried to drive it away but that it kept fol­low­ing her kids. A fed­eral con­trac­tor used dogs to track down and kill that bear.

In cases like this, pub­lic-safety pri­or­i­ties give wildlife man­agers lit­tle op­tion but to kill bears, Thorpe said.

“No­body gets into this line of work for that,” Thorpe said. “My dark­est days as a game war­den have been those days when I had to put a bear down — es­pe­cially if it could have been pre­vented if peo­ple were more dili­gent about se­cur­ing trash and other at­trac­tants.”

CPW of­fi­cials say a late spring freeze and a dry July could limit the quan­tity and qual­ity of for­age for bears in some ar­eas.

“With higher hu­man pop­u­la­tion den­si­ties, bears can be ex­pected to en­counter hu­man food more of­ten un­less peo­ple change their per­sonal be­hav­ior,” Lau­ren Truitt, a CPW spokes­woman, said in a state­ment. “The closer a bear, or bears, live to pop­u­lated ar­eas the more we will have hu­man­wildlife en­coun­ters due to the easy source of food avail­able.”

The agency es­ti­mates a statewide bear pop­u­la­tion of 17,000 to 20,000, but of­fi­cials say that num­ber is based on ex­trap­o­la­tions and con­cede sig­nif­i­cant un­cer­tainty. State wildlife man­agers have al­lowed in­creased hunt­ing, is­su­ing 17,000 bear-hunt­ing li­censes in 2014, up from 10,000 in 1997.

State wildlife bi­ol­o­gists have es­tab­lished that bears adapt to use hu­man food at least when nec­es­sary, and that fe­males for­ag­ing ag­gres­sively to boost their weight are more suc­cess­ful re­pro­duc­ing when they eat hu­man food.

The re­cent killings were done by CPW and fed­eral con­tract wildlife man­agers. A few bears in the south­west­ern re­gion were trapped and moved, but bi­ol­o­gists say that strat­egy of­ten fails if bears are moved to habi­tat oc­cu­pied by other bears or if a bear al­ready is strongly ha­bit­u­ated to eat­ing hu­man trash.

Typ­i­cally, bears con­fronted by hu­mans back off. Those turn­ing to hu­man food sources typ­i­cally are cu­ri­ous young males. CPW’S Thorpe said in­quis­i­tive bears in­creas­ingly may have had ex­pe­ri­ences mov­ing with their mothers as cubs into ur­ban ter­rain near peo­ple to find food — ren­der­ing them bolder than bears in the past.

Gov­ern­ment wildlife man­agers and landown­ers killed at least eight bears in the south­west­ern area be­tween Pagosa Springs and Cortez, CPW of­fi­cials said. One bear had been eat­ing chick­ens. Ten more were killed in moun­tain­ous ar­eas to the east.

A CPW spokes­woman said 16 bears were killed in the north­west­ern Colorado, and a cou­ple were killed in the north­east re­gion that in­cludes metro Den­ver and the boom­ing north Front Range sub­urbs. One bear at­tacked a camper west of Den­ver who was sleep­ing out­side a tent. The bear bit his head.

Tra­di­tion­ally at this time of year, bears for­age for forbs and bugs. But they are op­por­tunis­tic om­ni­vores who find food wher­ever they can.

Colorado’s boom­ing hu­man pop­u­la­tion and ex­pand­ing sub­urbs mean bears face more peo­ple more of­ten, learn­ing to lo­cate hu­man food in trash cans, in pet food bowls out­side houses — and oc­ca­sion­ally en­ter houses and cars.

Thorpe said at least four bears this month broke into homes near Durango. The home­own­ers re­sponded. “Jus­ti­fi­ably,” he said, “they shot the bears.”

This sum­mer’s bearhu­man con­flicts re­flect com­plex dy­nam­ics that CPW re­searchers are study­ing. A re­cent bear-track­ing project over six years around Durango reached con­clu­sions ex­pected to in­form a smarter ap­proach to bears. Among the find­ings:

• Bear-hu­man con­flicts do not nec­es­sar­ily mean the bear pop­u­la­tion is grow­ing but that bears are adapt­ing to take ad­van­tage of ur­ban ex­pan­sion.

• Bears that eat hu­man food do not be­come ad­dicted — con­trary to long-held be­liefs that have jus­ti­fied a two-strikes pol­icy of eu­th­a­niz­ing “food-con­di­tioned” bears.

• Rising tem­per­a­tures around dens and ur­ban de­vel­op­ment in bear habi­tat shorten bear hi­ber­na­tion, lead­ing more bears out more of­ten, po­ten­tially in­creas­ing clashes with peo­ple.

• Colorado’s bear pop­u­la­tion could de­cline. In south­west­ern Colorado around Durango, where re­searchers stud­ied 617 bears start­ing in 2011, the fe­male bear pop­u­la­tion de­creased by 60 per­cent.

“Coloradans do care about their wildlife, and we need their help to keep these bears wild. It is on all of us to do our part by tak­ing sim­ple steps like lock­ing up trash, tak­ing down bird feed­ers,” Truitt said. “If more peo­ple would be will­ing to se­cure their trash we could sig­nif­i­cantly re­duce many of the en­coun­ters we face each sum­mer.”

Jeremy Pa­passo, Daily Cam­era file

A black bear near the Univer­sity of Colorado cam­pus in Boul­der tries to find its way back to the for­est.

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