Human-bear conflicts a concern as bears pack on weight for winter

A black bear looks down from a tree as it hides from crowds below on French Street, August 2018 in Breckenridge.
Hugh Carey /

FRISCO — There are a lot of perks in getting to live in close proximity to Colorado’s wilderness, including the opportunity to observe some of the state’s famous wildlife in its natural habitat.

But that proximity also means that conflicts between humans and animals can become a problem, and officials say it’s the responsibility of residents and visitors alike to make sure we’re able to coexist.  

So as bears in the area begin to enter hyperphagia, Colorado Parks and Wildlife is urging residents to be aware of their responsibilities in order to assure both the safety of the public as well as the bears.

“It’s always a concern from late spring into mid-to-late November,” said Mike Porras, a spokesman with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “We have a robust bear population, and a growing human population. Conflicts have certainly increased over the last decade or so. Every year we have a number of interactions between humans and bears. What is happening this time of year is bears are starting to prepare for hyperphagia. Those incidents tend to ramp up right around this time of year.”

Hyperphagia is a period of excess eating bears enter annually to prepare for hibernation. According to Porras, bears are on the search for easy meals before winter, spending up to 20 hours grazing and trying to pack on 20,000 calories a day. And for black bears — omnivores that live largely on berries, nuts and the occasional scavenged carcass — those easy meals can often be found in back yards and dumpsters.

But when bears wander out of their habitats and into human populated areas, the results are often frightening. According to CPW, the department has received more than 3,800 bear-incident reports since April 1, most involving bears trying to access food sources.

On Aug. 18, a large bear bit a local restaurant manager in Aspen who discovered the bear in a dumpster scrounging for food, at least the town’s third attack of the year. On Aug. 26, a 71-year-old man was injured after a bear and its cub entered his house in Pine. And on Aug. 29, another bear injured a Winter Park restaurant employee after being discovered in the restaurant’s dumpster.

“It’s a serious concern,” said Porras. “Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s priority is human health and safety. Bears are very powerful, they can be very dangerous and they don’t belong around people because they can kill you. There’s a notion that bears can be cute and fun to look at. And they are, but only in their natural habitat, and not in your backyard.

“In some communities bears have learned to break into homes. Almost every night there’s one or two bears that either broke in or attempted to break into a home. And this could happen anywhere. … If you accidentally make a turn and corner a bear, that bear is going to react defensively but very aggressively. That’s when injuries happen.”

While getting into a conflict with 275- to 450-pound black bear is obviously a bad idea for humans, there can also be devastating consequences for the bear. In all three aforementioned bear attacks in August the bears were subsequently killed.

“It’s not something that any wildlife officer enjoys doing by any means, it’s the worst part of any wildlife officer’s job,” said Porras. “But they are going to act to protect the public. And when a person is being irresponsible they’re essentially forcing our hand. If you love wildlife then leave it alone — don’t attract them, and don’t feed them. We want our wild animals to remain wild. These are not pets, and this is not a zoo. They have their habitat, and we need to be responsible and make sure we’re not bringing them into ours.”

Bear attacks are largely preventable, and occur mostly when bears become habituated to residential areas and lose their fear of humans. But residents can do their best to be “Bear Aware,” and do their part to stop bears from seeking out meals at homes and populated areas.

To help keep bears away, residents should be sure to close and lock all of their first floor doors and windows overnight or when leaving, keep car doors locked, remove any tree limbs that might allow a bear to access upper level decks and windows, and replace exterior door handles with round door knobs bears can’t push or pull open. Additionally, residents should remove attractants by not leaving trash outside unless it’s in a bear-proof container, only using bird feeders during hibernation periods and removing any attractive smells from outside or near open windows.

Finally, Porras said it’s important not to allow bears to become comfortable in residential areas. So if a bear comes close to your home, residents should try and scare it away with loud noises from a safe distance. If a bear refuses to leave, or appears aggressive or unafraid of humans, residents should contact Colorado Parks and Wildlife immediately at 970-725-6200.

Bears in the area are expected to start exiting the hyperphagia stage and beginning their transition into hibernation in early November, and should exit hibernation around March next year. However, Porras noted that in some areas where bears have been able to find food throughout the winter — such as Breckenridge — some bears may not hibernate at all, highlighting why it’s important to practice proper bear awareness best practices year round.

For more information on how to stay bear aware, visit Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Living with Bears webpage.

“We all know that when bears have easy food sources, they will keep coming back to them,” said JT Romatzke, CPW’s northwest regional manager. “It’s not so much a bear problem as a human problem when we don’t prevent bears from finding easy meals, and also when we accept bad bear behavior as normal. We need people to call us early and often when bears become a nuisance, instead of waiting for a worst-case scenario.”

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