Bear Smart Durango teamed up with The Durango Herald in 2003 for a fifteen-week column that answered common resident questions about black bears, bear behavior and avoiding conflicts with bears.
Q: Who answered these questions?
A: We were fortunate to have retired, and he tried to stress retired, Colorado Division of Wildlife black bear researcher Tom Beck (pictured above and below) with his 25 years of bear behavior and ecology experience, answering the majority of the questions.
Q: Why do bears come into town in August?
A: Our black bears have evolved, through learning and many generations, to move seasonally to find the most abundant high-energy foods. In southwest Colorado, the preponderance of berry producing shrubs are found in low-elevation oakbrush areas. Thus each year, about mid-August, nearly all the bears in our mountains move down to oakbrush to seek out berries. First attention is given to the early ripening serviceberries and squaw apples, then on to chokecherries and finally to acorns.
At this same time, the physiology and feeding behavior of the bear changes. Bears will feed for about 20 hours per day during this frenzy of feeding and when berries are abundant they may consume up to 30 pounds per day. Considering that it takes about 1,500 chokecherries to make a pound, that is one busy bear! Nearly all the food is processed into stored fat.
The bears are driven to gorge themselves during this 4-6 week period to prepare for the long winter hibernation. Thus, when freezes or drought limit the food crop, the bears seek alternative sources to provide the vast quantities of energy needed. Durango and outlying areas have built up in the primary fall feeding area of bears- oakbrush. For thousands of years bears have been coming here, but only recently have they encountered housing. It is unreasonable to expect the bears to stay away and there are no high-energy food sources available elsewhere.
Q: My neighbor saw a brown bear by her house. I thought we only had black bears in Durango?
A: The term black bear refers to the common name of “Ursus americanus”, not to the color. About 75% of Colorado’s black bears are actually some shade of brown, as are 90% of southwest Colorado’s black bears. The brown hair fades rapidly during summer and results in bears with cinnamon and blond hair, but by fall the new hair is a dark brown. It is wrong to call these bears brown bears, as that common name is reserved for “Ursus arctos” -the grizzly and brown bears.
BEARS AND TRASH
Q: With all the natural food sources they have, why do bears risk coming into town for garbage?
A: The initial reason an individual bear starts feeding on human garbage is usually because of a shortage of natural foods. However, once a bear has successfully fed on human food, they remember the source of that food and how easy it was to obtain. Thus, when natural foods are abundant in later years, some bears will still go the easy route to obtain their nutrition. This unwanted bear behavior begins during years of food shortage but will continue throughout the life of the bear, about 25 years. The problem you allow to develop this year will continue for decades or until the bear is either moved or killed.
Q: I see “GARBAGE KILLS BEARS” stickers everywhere. How in the world does garbage kill bears?
A: By changing the natural behavior of bears. Actually, it’s the food component of garbage that is the root of the problem. We throw away thousands of calories of highly digestible, highly nutritious food every day. (If you don’t think so, dump your garbage out on a tarp sometime and sort it). Many species of wildlife have learned to take advantage of this food source, including bears. This ready access to food leads to a behavior called food-conditioned habituation. Animals have learned that if they tolerate people, this pattern of behavior will be rewarded with easy, nutritious meals.
Most often it’s the the patience of humans that wears thin. The first time you see a bear in your trash, it’s both novel and interesting. By the 20th time of picking up scattered trash, it’s become a pain. In response, the offending animal is often killed, most often by law enforcement personnel. Rather than change their own behavior, people often want wild animals to change THEIR behavior or be moved. Once bears have learned to seek food from humans, it’s extremely difficult changing their behavior. Catching and moving bears leads to the death of many bears. Some of the bears moved to new, unfamiliar habitat are killed by resident bears or, put at a food disadvantage in a new place, starve. Many bears cover hundreds of miles of terrain to return to their natural home range, where the conflict originated.
Under current Division of Wildlife policy, all captured nuisance bears are tagged. Tagged bears involved in future conflicts with people are humanely killed by DOW officers. Regardless of how bears actually die, the ultimate cause of these deaths goes back to food conditioning, most oftenly garbage. Do your best to keep wild bears wild.
Q: What is it about trash that bears find so enticing?
A: Bears have very simple stomachs, much like humans and their ability to digest various kinds of foods is similar as well. The ideal food for bears is one that is highly digestible, highly nutritious, and abundant. Durangos’ homes and gardens provide an abundance of foods which meet all 3 criteria. What normally keeps bears away is a natural wariness to humans. However, in times of food shortage, this wariness is overcome. If nothing bad happens to a bear when it encounters humans or homes, then bears have just received a full belly at little cost. If this behavior is repeated several times, we call this a food-conditioned bear. As this behavior continues, the bear shows no wariness to people. This is now a human-habituated and food-conditioned bear, one that is more dangerous than a wild bear.
Q: My neighbors wheel their trash out the night before pickup. Doesn’t that cause bear problems?
A: Very much so. Work in Arizona shows that the single most effective technique to reduce bear-people conflicts is to place trash out the morning of pickup only. The 3 keys to bears and human garbage are: placing your trash out the morning of pickup only, storing garbage all week in a secure building or storage site and regularly cleaning trash containers with a solution of bleach and water.
Q: Is it true that mother bears teach their cubs to look for easy food in trash?
A: Only if she has already learned to seek food from trash. Normally wild bears are wary of being around humans. It usually takes a natural food shortage to force bears to seek out human-provided food. However, once they learn that trash and yards are easy foraging areas, they never forget. If a mother bear has already become food-conditioned, then she teaches her cubs about this food source from the very beginning, as much of a cubs first six months is learning about “habitat” from following its mother. She teaches them den locations, good shade spots and food sources. If she is a trash-addicted bear, she will teach her cubs to be trash-addicted as well. Considering that a black bear may live to be 20 years old in the wild, this is a bad habit to let get started in their first year. Your yard then becomes part of their “normal” habitat, and not only in a bad natural food years.
Q: I don’t have a garage or shed to store trash. How can I keep my trash secure from bears?
A: A cheap and effective way is to obtain a metal drum (30 or 55 gallon size) with a locking metal lid and always keep the lid securely fastened. Bears will still be attracted to the smell but quickly lose interest when they can’t obtain food. This system is what bear researchers use to store bear bait in remote locations when trapping bears. If you have to place trash in a container suitable for trash pick-up this system requires extra handling, so be sure to use strong bags and don’t overload. While this may seem to be a nuisance, it is far less work than having to pick up trash that has been strewn about by bears, raccoons or other animals.
CONFLICT WITH BEARS
Q: I enjoy having the bears in my yard. What can I do to not cause conflict?
A: First, make sure that bears do not have access to “unnatural” bear foods such as pet food, livestock feed, bird seed, sugar-water hummingbird feeders, compost or trash. Removing unnatural food sources restricts bears to feeding only on “natural” bear food sources – berries, fruit, acorns, and green vegetation, either wild or planted. Once these natural foods are exhausted the bears will usually move on. Second, be a responsible neighbor. Talk with your neighbors to learn their comfort level with bears in the neighborhood. While the risk of a bear attack is quite low, the fear of such an attack is quite real, especially in families with small children. Deal with these concerns up front before allowing bears to hang around. And while your yard may be secure in terms of unnatural foods available to bears, your neighbor’s yard may not be. This will surely lead to the bears seeking unnatural foods in the neighborhood. Failure to address the larger picture will result in negative attitudes towards the bears and ultimately the death of a bear. Not to mention hard feelings among your neighbors!
Q: I don’t want bears on my property. What steps should I take to not attract them?
A: Don’t have any bear food available at your site. This includes natural nuts and berries (acorns and chokecherries primarily), domestic berry and fruit crops, gardens (especially corn), garbage, pet food, bird feeders, livestock food and compost piles. Now, many of us live in semi-rural areas precisely because we want some of these amenities. So, if you want a garden, or fruit trees, or blackberries – but no bears, raccoons and deer- you will need to fence wildlife out. This is often expensive, less esthetically pleasing and a case of trade-offs. The best fencing systems vary and are often site-dependent, depending on proximity of neighbors, children, and on local ordinances. It takes a very stout fence or an electrically charged fence to deter black bears. Take the time to check with the Division of Wildlife at 247-0855 for specific wildlife fencing recommendations.
Q: Bears eat from my fruit tree. Is that okay?
A: It’s fine as long as you are willing to accept that you’ll likely suffer serious limb damage from chewing and breaking and that you will now be encouraging these same bears to come back each year. Also, consider your neighbor’s concerns and feelings as a bear can eat all the fruit from a single tree in a day, then they are off to look for more sources. Bears readily move 5 or more miles during a day of foraging so a problem is never just your problem-it is a community problem. The best way to enjoy fruit is to pick it about 5 days before it becomes tree ripe (you can smell the soft fruits as they ripen) and store the fruit in a cool, dry place. Fallen fruit should be picked up and disposed of daily. Bears will still wander through, but without food on the site they will keep moving.
Q: What is it about my hot tub cover that black bears find so appealing?
A: There’s no explaining taste! It’s likely that the smell of the vinyl material is what attracts the bear’s attention. Vinyl and other plastics give off numerous volatile compounds for quite a long period, similar to the “new car” smell if you’re lucky enough to buy new cars. For some reason, a wide array of petroleum-based smells, like lantern and propane stove fuel, attract bears. In fact, the additive put in natural gas to make it a noticeable odor has been used to successfully lure in bears during bait-trapping operations. As to the hot tub cover, wipe it down with a strong ammonia solution once a week. Though not 100% effective, it will help-and you keep a clean cover.
Q: How can I help reduce human and bear conflict?
A: First, become knowledgeable about black bear seasonal movements and food requirements. Then make your own property as free of bear attractants as possible. If you want fruit trees and berry bushes, be willing to pick your fruit early. If you live in the County, you can use electric fencing to keep bears and other predators out of livestock and crop areas. Good designs and effective equipment are available and reasonably priced, so check with your local Division of Wildlife office for specifics. But no matter what you do, it will not protect you unless your neighbors are also doing the same thing.
So now comes the tough part. Go meet with your neighbors. Explain to them that the only real solutions must be community-based. Then work collectively to remove bear attractants and educate ALL residents of appropriate behavior around black bears. You can become part of the Bear Smart Durango volunteer program. Or you could purchase one of the city’s new bear-proof trash containers. Ultimately the responsibility lies with all of us who choose to live within black bear habitat. Human food is addictive to bears. It is much easier to keep a bad habit from starting than it is to correct the bad habit.
HUMAN FOOD SOURCES
Q: Is some human food okay for bears to eat?
A: NO. Human food causes no problem to bears stomachs and they love it. Unfortunately, it causes the bears to change their behavior towards humans. They become less wary of humans because the trade-off is so addictive to bears: highly nutritious, highly digestible, easy-to-get food. It’s up to us to never allow a bear to start a bad habit, as we all know, nothing is harder to break than a bad habit.
DIVISION OF WILDLIFE BEAR POLICY
Q: What is a “strike”, and what does a bear have to do to get one?
A: Contrary to the beliefs of many residents, simply calling the Colorado Division of Wildlife about a bear does not automatically label that bear as a problem. “Anytime a bear has to be captured by wildlife officers, it is considered a strike”, says Drayton Harrison of the Colorado Division of Wildlife. “A bear is trapped, and receives 2 ear tags and a lip tattoo so it can be later identified by wildlife officers. The bear is then relocated and becomes a one-strike bear. Bears getting into residents’ trash or simply roaming around town do not warrant capture by wildlife officers. Bears have to exhibit some kind of behavior that make them a candidate for capture, such as breaking into houses, a human-habituated bear or one that is living near, say, a school-zone. These bears are considered a threat and are captured. Relocating bears does not always work. There really aren’t many places in Colorado you can move a bear where it won’t come into contact with people. Many times bears return to the original capture site within several weeks,” adds Harrison.
Q: What happens to a bear when it gets its’ second strike?
A: A bear that is considered a threat to people or property is captured by wildlife officers and is relocated. If that bear returns and continues its’ threatening behavior a second time, it is recaptured and humanely euthanized. Considering that most bears initially become “problem” bears because of access to human food that we provide, such as trash, it is the responsibility of Durango residents that black bears are destroyed. “When a bears’ behavior warrants capture for the second time by the DOW, that bear is euthanized. Euthanizing bears is never a popular option. A large portion of the public doesn’t like the idea, and the DOW is not pleased to have to put down bears. But unfortunately when bears and people clash, bears pay the price,” says Drayton Harrison of the DOW.
Q: Why can’t “problem” bears just be moved elsewhere?
A: Several reasons. All bear habitats are already inhabited by resident bears and putting strange bears into that mix upsets the natural social system of bears. It also places the transplanted bears at great disadvantage in finding food. Much of a bears activities are based on learning and memory, both handy attributes for animals that live quite a long time. Disadvantaged bears are then more apt to seek out non-natural foods or “easy” foods, pet food and garbage for example. Many transplanted bears soon become problem bears in the new areas, others return home (an Ontario bear returned over 200 miles in one month), many die from accidents or are killed by other bears, while about a third survive and stay in the new area. Catching and moving bears is expensive in both dollars and manpower. Most importantly, moving bears only treats the symptoms, not the problem of access to human food.
ENCOUNTERING A BLACK BEAR
Q: I was out jogging and unexpectedly encountered a bear. What should I have done?
A: First, be more aware of your surrounding environment so that you are looking for surprises on sharp corners or when going through “bear areas”. Similar to defensive driving, if you anticipate in advance, the more likely you’ll do the right thing when surprised.
Upon encountering a bear, immediately locate all “exits” in the area. Then don’t go there, leaving the obvious exits for the bear to take. Stand upright and talk to the bear in a normal voice level, accepting that your voice may have risen in pitch. Slowly back away from the bear but do not back yourself up against a cliff or tree if it can be avoided. If you are listening to music, take off your headphones, turn up the volume and then drop it on the ground. Similarly, drop a hat, day pack or water bottle (anything to distract the bear) on the ground, giving the bear something to investigate while you back away.
Don’t take your eyes off the bear. Your eyes are your best sensory system in this situation. Do not run. Do not climb a tree. Black bears are the better climber and you will have no escape. And worse, doing so may elicit normal, aggressive bear to bear responses, when a bear will bite the hind foot of a chased, tree-climbing bear.
Close encounters are equally stressful to bears as well. Bears will usually signify their unease by “vocalizing”- huffing, snorting and popping their jaws. These are not aggressive sounds, rather they are telling you the bear is upset.
In nearly all cases, close encounters end with the bear busting off through the brush. However, bears that have become habituated to humans through access to human food are much more unpredictable. So, while you’re backing away, be looking for possible weapons, a stout stick or a softball sized rock, just in case the bear DOES charge. Remember, try to stay calm and think. I know this is difficult but it’s the same advice I give myself when driving in Denver.
Q: I’ve heard about using deterrents on bears, like shooting them with rubber pellets. Does that work?
A: Only in limited situations. And this level of conditioning is exceedingly difficult to conduct effectively in a large area like Durango. The process is called aversive conditioning. Basically, if a bear does some behavior that we think is inappropriate, then we should provide some negative enforcement to stop the behavior. The problem is that bears need to receive negative enforcement EVERY time they engage in this behavior, say feeding from a garbage can. But if a bear only gets popped 3 times out of every 100 cans, then he still has a pretty good garbage feeding regimen going. Bears have to learn that there is a direct link between an action by them and a response by you.
If we can train a bear to know that his action A will always result in punitive action B, then he will quit. (It is not unlike humans driving down the road in excess of the speed limit. How often you speed is probably directly related to how often you get caught doing so). The same principle applies to bears and aversive conditioning. Some people think hunting or killing bears provides some learning, but you can’t change the learning behavior of a dead bear.
SPRING BEAR HUNT
Q: Are there more bears near Durango because the spring bear hunt was stopped?
A: Not likely. Hunting takes a relatively small proportion of the bear population each year. Prior to 1993, the spring hunt resulted in an average of 360 bears being killed statewide out of a population of 10,000-12,000 black bears. It is unlikely this number had any impact on bear and human conflicts. Since ending the spring hunt, the total of black bears killed by hunters has actually increased significantly. There are a number of beliefs as to why this is, but data to support any position is limited. Hunting has not been shown to be effective at reducing human-bear conflicts, rather the key is to keep bears from ever having access to human food.
WHO TO CALL
Q: I just saw a bear in town. Who do I call?
A: YOUR KIDS, YOUR SPOUSE OR YOUR BEST FRIEND! Let them get the rare chance to see a wild bear. But observe the bear responsibly. Don’t approach the bear and always leave a bear a clear and reasonable escape route. If you believe the bear poses a human safety problem call Central Dispatch at 385-2900 to have them send the nearest law enforcement people. If the bear is actively destroying property (beehives, garage doors) call the Division of Wildlife at 247-0855.
If the bear is just wandering along, then just leave it alone and don’t call anybody. Bears are pretty darn good at getting themselves out of trees by themselves and even out of town. The worst possible thing to do is to become part of a crowd forming around the bear. Now you have created a very stressed out and unpredictable bear.
ARTIFICIALLY FEEDING BEARS
Q: Why can’t we just feed the bears so they don’t come into town?
A: Artificial feeding is a nightmare on several fronts. Logistically, it is quite difficult. We would have to provide many tons of food each year, distributed throughout normal fall bear habitat. Creating artificial feeding sites prior to the fall bear concentration would be quite difficult as adult males are cruising widely over ranges greater than 200 square miles looking for females, sub adult males are dispersing long distances to find new home ranges, and adult females with young are hardly moving at all, keeping their cubs away from other bears.
Since bears move down to the oakbrush regardless of food conditions at high elevations, we would have to then feed them at low elevations. Feeding sites would congregate bears at unnaturally high densities in close proximity to human habitations. This would lead to increased aggression among bears, some would be killed by other bears and others would be run off. The less aggressive bears would then wander into housing areas. This high concentration of food-habituated bears then poses a safety problem to unaware human hikers and campers. How would you like to pitch the old pup tent in a quiet valley only to find that the state is feeding 100 bears just over the ridge about a 10-minute bear walk away?
This unusual concentration also creates difficulty with hunting of bears in September. It’s obviously unethical and illegal to hunt the bears in the feeding area. But closing a large area to hunting then makes fewer bears available to those hunters pursuing them in natural food areas. And the worst aspect is that the bears will readily identify the food as being related to man, unless we do expensive air food drops. Thus the bears will become BOTH human-habituated and food-conditioned, a combination that creates the group of bears that break into houses and aggressively approach people.
It is easy to think that we could dump enough food at high elevations to keep bears “up high”. The problem is that most Colorado bears do not spend much time “in the high country”. Some bears never leave the oakbrush zone while most do venture into the aspen communities, but the high spruce-fir forests are the worst bear habitat in Southwest Colorado. The bears have always come down in August, and likely always will. We have enough experience with feeding bears in national parks to know that nothing good comes from this. It’s also demeaning for a wild animal to be treated this way. When in doubt, take the course of action to keep “Wild Bears Wild”. Read an expanded monologue by Tom Beck on artificially feeding bears here.
Dead bear cub photo courtesy: The Durango Herald