Drought, frost among factors causing bears’ extra activity

Colorado’s black bears feed on a variety of mountain shrubs and berries when gettiong ready to hibernate. Some aspects of climate change may reduce the availability of natural foods.

Autumn is the time for Colorado’s black bears to feed voraciously, trying to store enough fat to survive a long winter’s hibernation. Climate change may mean some foods fail to appear each year, and bears may not able to adapt quickly enough.

A bear rummages through a dumpster in this file photo. In drought years and those when a late frost knocks down the natural food sources, the number of bears conflicts and the number of nonhunter bear kills also have risen. Photo Special to the Sentinel/Colorado Division of Wildlife.

The combination of drought and late-spring frosts have been hard on Colorado’s black bears.

Late-arriving frosts blacken fruit and berry buds and prevent acorns from developing, and the drought comes along and knocks down what might have survived the earlier events.

Add to that the pressures of more people living and recreating in bear country, endless garbage cans and barbecues to raid, and the particular temptation of a slow-moving sheep or two when groceries are hard to come by, and you get trouble.

While certain areas seem harder hit than others, it’s not been a localized problem, as wildlife managers across western Colorado will stress.

“This year, it was across the board,” Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman Randy Hampton said. “Some of our historical areas were reporting more conflicts than usual, but really there weren’t many areas without bear problems.”

Recent newspaper accounts tell of increased conflicts around Durango and in the Roaring Fork Valley, two areas where bear problems seem to come with the territory.

The Durango Herald quoted Hampton as saying 2012 “will probably be the most significant (year) for human-bear interactions on record.”

Such “interactions” usually aren’t good for humans or bears, although humans usually suffer a little property or economic loss while bears sometimes die for their efforts.

While wildlife managers haven’t finished tallying how many bears were killed last year in nonhunting encounters, preliminary figures indicate nonhunting mortalities would add another 30 percent or more to the 1,074 bears killed by hunters.

Whatever the 2012 total will be, readers can be sure a lot of bears wind up dead when natural foods are scarce.

An Associated Press story that appeared in mid-December said 100 bears were killed through that date in Parks and Wildlife’s Area 8, which includes Eagle, Pitkin and parts of Gunnison counties.

We know it as the Roaring Fork Valley, where Aspen and its much-reported bear problems are the main focus.

Nonhunting encounters include roadkills and bears euthanized because they couldn’t stay out of trouble.

That means people left their garbage, barbecues and bird feeders where bears could find them, even though local ordinances warn of fines for not keeping such things safely stored.

Perry Will, the Area 8 wildlife manager, said last year’s conflicts were remarkable but not unprecedented.

“We’ve had worse years, but it was a tough one last year,” Will said. “Seems like 2007 and 2009 were terrible and then last year. Seems like every other year we get hammered with the bears.”

He said wildlife officers know bear conflicts will rise in years in which the acorn and berry crop fail.

“That’s when the bears suffer the most,” he said. “And that’s when our phones start ringing.”

The Durango Herald reported another 83 bears were reported killed in nonhunting encounters around Durango and southwest Colorado, including 53 roadkills.

Closer to home, ranchers, landowners and the federal predator control agency Wildlife Services last year killed about 100 bears on the south side of Grand Mesa, where Muddy Creek and McClure Pass come together, when the bears preyed on sheep grazing the area.

“That area along the North Fork had a hard late frost, which wasn’t a good start, and then hot, dry conditions all summer,” said J Wenum, area wildlife manager from Gunnison. “When bears start looking for something to eat and find their natural food sources are short, sheep look awfully tempting.”

Bears are recidivists, returning again and again to the open garbage cans, barbecues and sheep flocks where meals are easy to find.

“Once a predator discovers how easy it is to prey on sheep, you can’t break it of that habit,” Wenum said.

Humans can protect their flocks, their trash, dog food and bird feeders.

Humans know what to do to stay out of trouble, although not all of them care or remember to.

Bears, whose only desire is to fill an empty belly, may die doing what comes natural.


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