Study of state’s bears counters prior beliefs on interactions | SummitDaily.com

Study of state’s bears counters prior beliefs on interactions

Bruce Finley, Amy Brothers and RJ Sangosti
The Denver Post

DURANGO – Curled up in a den on an acorn-rich hillside, a hibernating bear and her three fuzzy cubs face increasingly perilous conditions.

People in homes 200 yards below constantly tempt them with food — this 180-pound sow knows well how to navigate garbage-scented urban smorgasbords in late summer if acorns and berries vanish. But state policy requires extermination of bears repeatedly caught eating garbage. Record numbers are dying. And the dozing bears also feel warmer temperatures near their rocky den that shorten hibernation.

Now, near the top of the hill, a Colorado Parks and Wildlife research team with a tranquilizer dart on a 6-foot jab pole is creeping toward them.

This den visit is one of the last in a six-year study of black bears in Colorado that challenges core assumptions state wildlife managers have relied on for decades. Rising conflicts with people motivated the CPW study, which will be published this year. Seldom have scientists tracked and monitored so many bears so closely, even analyzing fur to verify what bears ate.

The findings are expected to change human efforts to control bears.

• CPW researchers concluded that increasing bear-human conflicts do not mean the bear population is growing but that bears are adapting to take advantage of urban expansion. This will compel a rethinking of Colorado's current approach of boosting bear hunting based on the number of conflicts reported in an area. If bears aren't multiplying, heavy hunting could hurt the species.

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• The researchers also found that bears who eat garbage do not become addicted. This clashes with the current belief that has justified a two-strikes policy of euthanizing "food-conditioned" bears. CPW's team determined that bears use human food when necessary — to boost their weight so they can reproduce — but switch back to natural berries and acorns when possible.

• CPW tracking established that rising temperatures around dens and urban development in bear habitat significantly shorten hibernation — which means more time for bears to clash with people.

• And Colorado's bear population could decline if current trends and practices continue. In southwestern Colorado around Durango, where researchers studied 617 bears starting in 2011, the female bear population decreased by 60 percent.

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