Tight connection between food and bear behavior



Managing people and managing bears possibly is the most-demanding task facing Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

That’s a singular “is,” because in many ways, it’s the same task.

Name, if you can, any other species that have such close ties, including living, feeding and reproducing in proximity to one another.

A proximity, we are reminded, in which one day one species may feed bears and the next day kill those very same bears.

That Colorado has a robust black bear population is not questioned. How else can state and federal wildlife officers, ranchers, landowners, livestock raisers and the state’s roads combine to kill upward of 300 bears in a given year and there still be room to raise hunting quotas and license numbers in an effort to increase sporting opportunities for hunters?

As a chart elsewhere on this page shows, over the past 10 years (and longer but we’re limited by space), the demand for, and availability of, bear hunting licenses has risen steadily, as has the annual legal bear kill by hunters.

In that time, particularly 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.

Many of those conflicts stem from shortages of natural food sources, which drives bears into places (human-type places) where alternative foods may be found.

It’s these bears (and people) that are the most difficult to control, because once bears find an easy food source, the lesson isn’t forgotten.

Some urban bears are caught and relocated, but that task is hard because despite the seeming vastness of Colorado’s backcountry, there’s simply no place to put a bear that doesn’t already have a bear in it.

“There really isn’t any open bear habitat,” Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman Randy Hampton said, echoing a thought expressed by wildlife managers around the Western Slope.

Of course, it would be easier and much less traumatic for everyone if there weren’t open garbage cans, barbecues, etc., but in spite of years of trying to educate people, the task remains unfulfilled.

Hampton said state and local officials emphasize that when people complain, “I have a bear problem,” more likely it’s a human problem stemming from providing an attraction for bears.

“In communities like Aspen or the Eagle Valley where people are there for only a short time, they may see a bear in their trash or barbecue as a photo op,” said Perry Will, the Parks and Wildlife Area 8 wildlife manager for the Roaring Fork Valley. “Those people can fly out the next day, but the people who live there, and the bears, can’t fly out.”

While it’s not possible to hunt recidivist bears in a town, increasing hunting licenses in outlying areas may help.

“If a hunter removes a bear in the backcountry, what that may do is open a spot for a bear that is chased out of town,” Hampton said.

It may be that climate change will increase the frequency of human/bear conflicts.

If late spring frosts and drought cycles (or if rain/snow falling at inopportune times) become more regular, bears will need to adapt to those changes.

Author Paul Solotaroff, speaking to NPR in 2011 about the grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park, said, “Every reasonable scientist ... agrees that there is a very tightly knit connection between ... food supply and the behavior of these bears.

“What is driving these bears into populated places is hunger (deriving) from the ripple effect of the last 10 years and the significant but gradual warming of the last 30 years in the American Northwest.”

The task facing wildlife managers continues to grow.


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