Colorado Parks and Wildlife urges reductions in human-bear conflicts after euthanizing 120 animals last year

A bear sits in a tree in a Littleton backyard on July 7, 2020. Colorado Parks and Wildlife received 4,943 bear reports in 2020.
Photo from Jason Clay / Colorado Parks and Wildlife

Colorado Parks and Wildlife released new data this week collected on human-bear interactions in the state over the past year, providing insights on why conflicts happen and the impacts on the animals.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife received 4,943 bear reports in 2020 — which can include anything from direct conflicts to sightings — slightly down from the 5,369 reports in 2019. While numbers are down from last year, wildlife managers don’t necessarily view the decrease as a pattern given the number of variables that drive conflicts year to year.

A map of bear reports documented in 2020.
Image from Colorado Parks and Wildlife

“A lot of that really depends on weather,” said Jason Clay, a public information officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “If you have a late freeze in the spring, if you have drought, and if you have bad natural fruit crops that bears rely on, in those years we do see a lot more conflicts. They become reliant on human food sources. The bears are doing their job, which is finding the calories they need to get them through the summer and fall, and to put on the weight they need for hibernation. … This year we had drought, we had a historic fire season, and the wildlife managers across the state really reported a lot of different conditions out there.”

While conflicts can be extremely dangerous for humans, they also can have devastating results for the animals. In 2020 alone, parks and wildlife was forced to euthanize 120 bears, and relocated 89. Since the beginning of 2015, the agency has euthanized 592 bears.

Clay noted that bears will sometimes be put down for humane reasons, such as if they’re injured by a car, but the primary cause is that the animals were deemed too dangerous to humans. That typically stems from bears becoming habituated to human areas, and losing their natural fear of people.

According to parks and wildlife, a total of 1,661 bear reports in 2020 involved a bear being attracted by trash — more than one-third of all reports. Other attractants such as bird feeders with 411 reports, unsecured chicken coops (254) and livestock (391) were all major contributors as well.

“If a bear comes on my deck and gets a reward from my bird feeder, some people may think it’s not a big deal and you don’t need to worry about it,” Clay said. “But if you combine that with the 12 other houses in the area the bear could be getting a reward from, all of a sudden that bear is learning to associate humans with food. They’ll take greater risks to go around humans and our homes. Bears are extremely smart and have great memories, but they’re also very lazy. They want to spend the least amount of energy to get the most calories they can.”

A map of bear reports documented in the Summit County area in 2020.
Image from Colorado Parks and Wildlife

Clay said once bears lose their fear of humans, their behavior often escalates to entering cars, garages and homes, which is the leading cause for bears being euthanized. In 2020, parks and wildlife documented more than 360 reports of bears breaking into homes, cabins and other dwellings.

Conflicts typically take place in the fall when bears enter hyperphagia — a prehibernation stage when bears are active as many as 20 hours a day packing on calories — and in the spring when they wake up.

Anyone who has a conflict with a bear should report the incident to parks and wildlife immediately, so that wildlife officers have a chance to try to change the bear’s behavior before it’s too habituated to the area, or so they can try to relocate it. Clay said relocation isn’t always a foolproof plan. If the animals are already accustomed to an easy meal in a certain location they can find their way back even if they’re moved a considerable distance.

Parks and wildlife officials said it would take a widespread effort from everyone to curb the amount of human-bear conflicts in the state. To help reduce conflicts, community members should make sure their trash is secured and remove other attractants like bird feeders between March and late November. Campers also should keep campsites clean, use bear lockers at campgrounds and avoid putting anything scented inside their tent.

Clay said there also were hazing tactics that community members could use to help ensure bears that wander onto their property retain some fear of humans, such as shouting, banging pots and pans, setting off car alarms and more.

“Be active, and do your part to avoid bear conflicts, and work with the rest of the community too. For things to improve it takes a communitywide effort,” Clay said. “If I’m doing my part but my neighbor has trash, bird feeders, pet food and all sorts of attractants outside there will be continued conflicts.”

For more information on reducing human-bear conflicts, visit the Colorado Parks and Wildlife website.


Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

As a Summit Daily News reader, you make our work possible.

Summit Daily is embarking on a multiyear project to digitize its archives going back to 1989 and make them available to the public in partnership with the Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection. The full project is expected to cost about $165,000. All donations made in 2023 will go directly toward this project.

Every contribution, no matter the size, will make a difference.