Colorado Parks and Wildlife released its black bear management draft plan earlier this month, amid long-term growth in the number of conflicts between bears and humans. The plan proposes two options: maintaining the bear population’s status quo or actively decreasing the bear population.
“We’re one of the highest-calling areas in the state,” Darren Chacron, CPW assistant area wildlife manager for Area 8 in Glenwood Springs, said at a public meeting held by CPW on Oct. 22 to present the management plan. He was referring to the number of times a member of the public calls wildlife or law enforcement authorities to report bear activity.
Annual bear mortality in the Eagle and Roaring Fork valleys — an area identified by CPW as B-11 — has been increasing over the past 20 years, according to the management plan. In the past 10 years, 118 bears were killed on average each year. This figure jumped to an average of 135 bears per year in the past three years.
The increase in bear mortality is the result of a higher number of human-bear encounters as both populations have grown over the past two decades. When natural bear food becomes more scarce, bears forage closer to urban centers to find food — human food left in unlocked trash.
“In eight of the last 15 years, B-11 has had unprecedentedly high human-bear conflicts, which have exceeded CPW field staff’s time and resources to reasonably handle,” the report said, as bear management is costly and time-consuming.
In 2009, a poor natural food year, CPW personnel in Glenwood Springs spent over 5,600 hours handling human-bear conflict issues, which cost about $200,000 for service and travel costs, the report noted.
“When I first came here (in 2001), we would float on the Roaring Fork River two to three nights a week actually doing other parts of our job,” Chacron recalled. “I can count on my hand as many times I've been out on the river checking fishermen in the past three years because a big portion of it is when we're dealing with conflict bears.”
The higher number of bear incidents also impacts municipalities and counties in the area.
“The officers in Pitkin County respond to more bear calls or clear more houses than we do because they have officers in the area,” Chacron said.
CPW presented the management plan to the Pitkin County Board of County Commissioners on Oct. 26 as the agency is seeking comments and feedback from the public.
“There are two sides of this bear-human conflict equation, and there are things that you guys, as the county, can do to help on the human side,” CPW wildlife biologist Julie Mao said to BOCC.
County Commissioner Greg Poschman expressed his concerns regarding the effectiveness of Alternative 2, which would increase the hunting-harvest license quota. Even if the bear population declines, he said, climate change and the increase in recreation and human population won’t help prevent these conflicts from happening.
“This is something that hits home literally,” added County Commissioner Patti Clapper. “I think it’s an important issue for us to be addressing.”
CPW’s black bear management draft plan released earlier this month for area B-11, which also includes portions of Gunnison and Grand counties, proposes two alternatives to reduce bear-human conflicts. While the first solution would maintain a moderate level of hunting harvest to obtain a stable bear population, the second seeks to decrease the bear population by increasing quotas and making it easier to get a license, until conflicts decline by 50% over the more recent three poor food years and/or the bear population decreases for three consecutive years. Meanwhile, CPW will keep working with counties and municipalities to implement and enforce ordinances requiring that trash is secured in bear-proof containers.
CPW estimates the current black bear population in the region at 1,040 and evaluates that the population is on the decline after increased license quotas in 2010. Yet, the bear population remains high and CPW staff recommends the second approach to actively decrease the bear population and the number of conflicts.
“To reduce human-bear conflicts, we recommend a dual strategy of (a) reducing the overall bear population through increased harvest and through removal of conflict bears, while also (b) addressing human-related attractants,” the report says.
The CPW Commission will eventually be tasked with deciding which management alternative to pursue, provided the plan passes a regional and statewide review.
With this second alternative proposed in the CPW plan, the bear mortality would increase from 13% into the 15-20% range, which would raise the averaged number of bears killed each year in B-11 from 135 to 156-208, including an increase of the annual number of harvested bears from 100 to 122-174. This will help reduce the population growth rate.
“I'd rather have a hunter harvest the bear than have any of our staff have to take care of it,” Chacron said.
The status-quo alternative mentioned in the report would keep bear mortality in the 10-15% range, which corresponds to 104-156 per year.
“Under this alternative, the bear population in B-11 would remain at its present size, and opportunities to draw a bear license would be ample, in at least the short term,” according to the report. “Human-bear conflicts would likely continue to be high in years of poor natural foods, unless communities are successful at securing trash and other human food sources. Vehicle collisions with bears would also remain high in poor natural food years.”
Bear-human conflicts at least doubled in poor natural food years
CPW staff estimates that over the past 12-plus years, 600-900 conflict reports were common in poor natural food years, compared to 300 or fewer conflict reports in good natural food years.
“2008 was a horrible year, we had officers in Aspen 24/7 for almost three or four weeks because of just the number of bears,” Chacron said. “It was a food failure year so they habituated, came into town.”
Natural bear food can be impacted by a June frost that will damage the berry bushes as they are beginning to flower, hurting their ability to produce the necessary food, said Mao, the CPW wildlife biologist. A drought in July or August can also affect the fruits, making the berries shrivel up and die.
Tourist-driven resort towns, like Aspen and Vail, have a large seasonal and transient population, which makes it harder to educate people about the importance of securing garbage and keeping doors and windows locked.
“There's a revolving door every two to three weeks, especially in the summer,” Chacron said. “We have visitors that come in — you can educate maybe those and then you've got a whole new group that’s coming in.”
CPW recorded 15 incidents with injuries to humans in the past 20 years, all occurring during poor or marginal natural food years. Nearly all the incidents happened in Aspen.
“The bear densities are probably higher there (in Aspen). Within B-11, the Roaring Fork has better bear habitat because all the natural foods are there, and then Aspen in particular is right at the confluence of three different drainages that all have a lot of good natural forage,” Mao said. “And then on top of that all the people are there, and then garbage in the alleyways.”
According to the report, many of the incidents with injuries involved a surprise encounter with a bear foraging in or near a house or dumpster, often left unlocked and/or open. “Typically, the bears had already habituated to feeding near people due to the abundance of unsecured trash in towns,” the report says.
Increase in bear mortality as conflicts have become the “new normal”
A higher number of conflicts results in a higher number of bears killed outside harvest season. In the 2010s, a third of the bears killed each year died from non-harvest causes. In the 1980s, less than 10% did.
In the past 20 years, bear mortalities jumped along with control kills and fatal accidents for bears.
In the 2000s, 62 bears were killed each year on average. About half of them were harvested by hunters and 26% died by control kills — which include bears killed after human conflict and for damage-control purposes by CPW, landowners protecting their livestock, or by the US. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS)/Wildlife Services. Twenty-one percent were accidentally killed, mostly roadkills.
“Whereas in the past, control kills of bears for human-related conflict were uncommon, since the mid-2000s control kills have increased both in number and as a proportion of total bear mortality in B-11 [where] bear conflict years are now the ‘new normal,’” according to the report.
In the past 15 years, over half of the years had high human-bear conflicts — and most of those years had poor or marginal natural food — resulting in an average of 53 bears per year who ended up either killed or translocated during those years, compared to 21 bears killed or translocated in the years with lower human-bear conflict.
Translocation is not always an effective solution as data about what happens to them after they move is unavailable in most cases, and bears sometimes come back.
Additionally, landowner-caused bear mortalities account for 15-20% of total known non-harvest bear mortalities. “But there is no clear correlation between fall forage quality and the number of landowner-caused mortalities,” the report said.
Facing this increase in non-harvest mortalities, CPW decided to increase license quotas in 2010. Since then, harvest accounts for two-thirds of overall mortality.
The 2015 CPW draft plan showed a public’s preference for Alternative 1
In 2015, CPW released a first draft of the bear management plan. At the time, most survey respondents supported the first alternative to maintain the current bear population.
Like in 2015, several members of the public who attended Friday’s meeting underlined that the top issue with bear-human conflicts is human behavior — securing trash and the lack of compliance they’ve seen across the valley. More vigilant use of bear-proof containers was encouraged.
“While the primary scope of CPW authority lies in the management of bears, it is important to note that the reduction of human-bear conflicts also depends on change in human perception and behaviors,” the report said.
Public comment period will end on Nov. 10.
This story ran in the Oct. 27 editions of The Aspen Times and Vail Daily.