Colorado wildlife officials urge caution as bears prep for hibernation
Hyperphagia eating period typically results in increase in human-bear conflicts
It’s that time of the year again.
Local black bears are entering hyperphagia, a period in the animals’ annual hibernation cycle when they’re out and about looking to pack on pounds before settling down for a long rest this winter. The hyperphagia period also represents a time of year when conflicts between humans and bears become more prevalent as the animals tend to mosey into human-populated areas to snag an easy meal from a bird feeder or dumpster.
Black bears are the only species of bear found in Colorado — despite many walking around with brown or cinnamon fur — but they’re not naturally aggressive toward humans. In fact, there have been only two bear attacks in Colorado this year — one that resulted in a fatality — and there were 14 combined between 2018 and 2020, according to Travis Duncan, a public information officer with Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s northwest region. Duncan said there hasn’t been a recorded bear attack in Summit County since 2001.
But that doesn’t mean encounters should be taken lightly: A face-to-face conflict with a full-grown, 275-pound male bear can always go wrong. But usually, it’s the bear facing the worst of the consequences.
“Our officers have to put animals down when they become a danger to health and human safety,” Duncan said. “They have to take that priority, and the biggest way that bears become habituated and too comfortable around humans is to seek those food sources. Black bears are not naturally aggressive; they seldom attack or injure people. The important thing is to keep wildlife wild. They should maintain a natural fear and avoidance of humans.”
There were a hair under 5,000 reports of human-bear conflicts in 2020 in Colorado, according to data provided by Parks and Wildlife, more than 2,000 of which were the result of the animals digging into trash cans or bird feeders. Last year alone, wildlife officers put down 120 bears and relocated 89 as a result of them becoming habituated to human areas.
Luckily, there are some easy steps that community members can take to help keep bears out of trouble.
During hyperphagia, bears will spend up to 20 hours a day tracking down food, and they can consume more than 20,000 calories a day, according to Parks and Wildlife. While there were about 645 reports of bears getting into chicken coops or livestock areas last year — and 74 reports of bears nosing into beehives (oh, bother!) — their natural diet consists mostly of berries, nuts, fruits and plants.
That means simply by removing tempting smells from a property, like bird feeders and pet food, bear conflicts can be greatly reduced. Residents in the area should also invest in bear-proof trash containers and keep them in a well-secured location until the morning of pickup.
“A lot of times it’s just unsecured trash, unsecured human food sources,” Duncan said. “They might find a huge calorie boost by finding unsecured bird seed or by finding pet food that they were able to get to. Once they find those food sources, they’re very smart animals, they remember where they are, and they remember they can get an easy meal there. They’ll be back to check.”
Parks and Wildlife recommends community members try to scare bears away so they don’t get accustomed to areas near homes. Shouting, making noise and even throwing things at bears that are moving through residential areas — all from a safe location — are useful options. Residents should also take the time to report bear conflicts and sightings to Parks and Wildlife, which can relocate bears if they’re not too heavily habituated or help bear-proof neighborhoods where activity has become troublesome.
“We evaluate what’s going on and where these bears are finding food,” Duncan said. “We’ll hold neighborhood meetings and let folks know bears are becoming a problem; we post it to Nextdoor to let folks know it’s becoming an issue. We’re really trying to figure out where the hot spots are. That’s why it’s good to call us because we collect that information and start to figure out where bears might be finding food or coming into a certain area.”
Of note, Duncan said Parks and Wildlife officials are paying especially close attention to how drought conditions on the Western Slope will impact bear activity over the coming months. Summit County has had plenty of rain this summer, and as a result, most of the county is in a moderate drought or simply abnormally dry, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
But much of the northwest part of the state remains in extreme to exceptional drought conditions, the most severe on the drought monitor’s scale.
“I think the one thing we’re keeping an eye on is the drought on the West Slope and trying to evaluate if that’s going to effect their food sources or what’s going on in terms of them being able to get what they need to hibernate,” Duncan said. “As far as we can tell, although it’s tougher to find, the food sources are there for bears. So we’re hopeful that we won’t have too many conflicts this year. But we’re keeping an eye on it and reminding folks to do their part. Make an effort to secure your food sources so that we can keep Colorado beautiful and with lots of bears.”
Duncan said the bears will likely go into hibernation sometime around mid-November.
For more information on how to live responsibly alongside black bears, visit CPW.state.co.us/bears. To report a bear conflict, call 970-725-6200.
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