More bears, more licenses

Grand Mesa licenses triple in past three years

Research indicates the state’s bear population is in the 16,000 to 18,000 range, and last week the state Parks and Wildlife Commission approved an increase in bear hunting licenses. Hunters this year are predicted to kill around 1,400 bears.



The Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission’s approval May 9 of more black bear licenses for Grand Mesa is part of a statewide plan to rein in a bear population that may have gotten out of hand.

Bear licenses across the state this year were increased, but nowhere saw as great an increase as the eight game-management units in the Grand Mesa bear management area.

From 480 licenses in 2012 to 1,000 licenses in 2013, the inflation continues a trend in which the number of Grand Mesa bear licenses has more than tripled over the past three years.

That hike reflects a state- and region-wide trend, said Ron Velarde, co-manager of Parks and Wildlife Northwest Region.

“Just in the Northwest Region our licenses have gone from 4,737 licenses in 2008 to 11,705 in 2013,” Velarde said.

That’s more licenses than were offered in the entire state in 2003, when 11,254 licenses were available.

This fall, 21,167 licenses are available statewide, 20 percent more than last year.

The high number of licenses is due to a higher estimate of the bear population after several years of intense research.

Also, there is the general failure of hunters to harvest bears.

State carnivore manager Jerry Apker told the commission the state’s bear population is around 16,000 to 18,000 animals, up from earlier estimates.

“We’ve been very conservative in our bear management, and consequently the bear population grew,” Apker said. “This year we have doubled the number of licenses, which vastly exceeds the demand, but when you use license numbers (to control populations), it takes hunters a while to respond.”

Wildlife managers use hunting as one tool to regulate wildlife populations ,and while elk hunters plug along at around 21 to 24 percent success each year, bear hunters succeed at a meager 9 to 11 percent.

JT Romatzke, manager of Parks and Wildlife Area 7, which covers from Utah to Glenwood Springs and Douglas Pass to the Mesa/Delta county line, said there is no shortage of bears in the area.

“We changed our (bear management) plan about a year ago, and as part of that we wanted to suppress the bear population on Grand Mesa to the point where the adult sow (female bear) harvest was driving the population,” he said.

Adult sows are the hardest bears to kill for various reasons, including they don’t move around as much as males and younger bears, especially young bears just leaving the den.

By monitoring the take of adult sows, biologists can follow population trends. Roughly speaking, when fewer sows are taken, the population is larger; when more sows show up in the harvest, hunters are dipping into the reproductive side of a smaller population.

Currently about 40 percent of the annual harvest is adult female bears.

“When we start seeing the harvest of sows grow, we know we are starting to move the population down,” Romatzke said. “If we can get sows to 50 percent of the harvest, at that point we will probably start to pull back” on license numbers.

He said game-damage issues and concerns about human conflicts drove the license decisions, although bear conflicts are much less in Area 7 than other bear-rich areas such as Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley.

“We are fortunate in having a very diverse amount of habitat in Area 7, but we experience some bear problems even in the best food years,” Romatzke said.

“Last year was a pretty good food year for bears, and we only had a couple of places where there were conflicts,” he said, citing Battlement Mesa and Rifle as hot spots for bear conflicts. “Our challenge comes not so much from the human element as what Mother Nature gives us.”

There also are bears setting up house in the cornfields around Mack and Loma.

“They probably came down here in 1997 or 2002, when we had (natural) food shortages, and discovered a pretty good food source,” Romatzke said. “They started denning here and having their cubs, and now their cubs are starting to learn that habit.

“This isn’t an appropriate place for them, and we don’t want them here.”


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