Learning to live with bears is the new normal in Colorado

RBC | After several recent bear conflicts in Colorado, including close encounters, home invasions and an attack on a sleeping camper in Boulder County, July 9, Colorado Parks and Wildlife is stressing education as one of the most effective ways to prevent wildlife conflicts.
CPW officials say although many bear conflicts may seem unprovoked or random, a typical precursor in most incidents is a general lack of knowledge about wildlife, or a willful disregard for a few basic rules.
“Bears are just doing what comes naturally to them,” said Area Wildlife Manager Perry Will of Glenwood Springs. “They are driven by hunger and instinct; and when their natural food sources become scarce like we’ve seen with the recent dry spell in some areas, they look for other sources. That brings them into communities where they easily find all kinds of things to eat. Humans on the other hand have a choice in how they behave.”
With the current bear population in the state conservatively estimated between 17,000-20,000, wildlife officials say human/bear conflicts remain a primary concern. Despite years of information and education outreach, trash storage ordinances in communities with significant bear activity and efforts to reduce bear populations in high conflict areas, interactions continue to occur and make headlines.
In addition to the high-profile incident in Boulder County, a recent viral video featured a bear wandering inside a Colorado Springs home for five hours, casually opening the refrigerator and pantry while the homeowner slept inside, unaware of the bear’s presence. A week earlier, a woman shot video of the same bear through her car window after the bear entered the woman’s garage and pressed its nose up to the vehicle’s glass. Wildlife managers believe the bear had learned the sound of a garage door opening was a cue to dart inside.
Due to concerns for human safety, wildlife officials killed the 375-pound bear several days later after discovering it sitting on the deck of a nearby home.
Another video widely disseminated last month showed a bear seemingly playing the piano after it entered a Vail condominium through an open window while the occupant was away. The video may have elicited chuckles but wildlife officers did not see the humor in the situation, considering the dangers posed by a bear with a habit of breaking into homes.
So what can you do to prevent a dangerous bear conflict? There are a multitude of tips and suggestions for homeowners and outdoor enthusiast available from many sources, but the primary message wildlife managers offer to the public—it’s all about food.
“It’s actually fairly simple—keep your food away from bears,” said Will. “We can’t stress it enough— never, ever feed a bear, whether by leaving your trash out, your lunch in your car, your birdfeeders up or giving it a handout—it’s all the same. Bears are smart and have great memories. If the bear gets into your trash, your car, or crawls through a window you left open and finds a meal, you just put your entire neighborhood in danger; if you’re on a hike and give a bear a handout to get a closer look, you just put all hikers in the area at risk; if you keep a dirty campsite or leave food in your tent or otherwise accessible and you attract a bear, you just jeopardized the safety of all nearby campers.”
Will says in addition to fines for violating city ordinances where they exist, feeding a bear is illegal in Colorado and can result in a citation from CPW officers.
Another important tip wildlife officers offer is never let a bear feel comfortable around people.
If you see a bear in an area where it is not supposed to be, or it appears comfortable with your presence, wildlife officers recommend immediately making it feel unwelcome. Raise your voice and talk to it firmly, bang pots and pans or throw rocks or sticks toward it and try to drive it away. It may seem cruel but conditioning them to avoid people is the most humane thing the public can do for a bear.
However, if a bear does not respond to hazing or it continues to approach, the first thing to remember is never turn and run. Stand your ground, prepare to take stronger measures and defend yourself with everything you have. That can include using bear spray, punching and kicking the bear as aggressively as possible, hitting it with a sturdy hiking stick, branches, rocks or other makeshift weapons.
In the Boulder County incident, the teen fought the bear by aiming blows at its eyes.
“He did exactly the right thing, something he learned from his grandfather,” said Northeast Region Public Information Officer Jennifer Churchill.
Acting Northwest Regional Manager Dean Riggs says some in the public may consider using firearms to protect themselves in case of a dangerous wildlife encounter; however, CPW recommends bear spray as an effective alternative to a gun as the first means of defense.
“We understand people have the right to legally carry and use a firearm to defend themselves from a bear attack, but it’s not as effective as people think, and if you shoot your gun in a residential area or a crowded campsite you could accidentally kill someone,” said Riggs. “Bear spray is actually a much more effective deterrent, proven in several field studies. It’s a good idea to have bear spray at home if you live in bear country, or bring it along if you recreate in an area with bear activity.”
CPW officials say black bears in Colorado do not often attack people, but they are capable of mauling and killing humans. Riggs says when it comes to choosing between human health and safety and a dangerous wild animal, there are few options for wildlife officers.
“To protect people, wildlife officers will kill any bear showing aggression toward humans,” he said. “When people feed bears, they essentially sentence them to death but it’s our officers who have to carry out the execution. It’s by far the worst part of the job.”
CPW says the public can safely watch bears from a distance, with binoculars, a scope or a camera with a telephoto lens. At no time should people approach a bear to get a closer look, or offer it food to get a better picture.
For more information about living with bears and avoiding conflicts, visit the ‘Bear Aware’ page on the agency’s website, cpw.state.co.us.