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One of the Denver Zoo's two grizzly bears sits in Harmony Hill, the zoo's new bear exhibit, on May 15, 2019. (Courtesy of Denver Zoo)

As the spring thaw sweeps across Colorado’s mountains, the season has dawned deadly for the state’s bears.

Already this year, wildlife officials have had to euthanize 12 bears, and more than 200 bear-human encounters have been reported to the state, according to Parks and Wildlife numbers. Some of those encounters are just sightings, but they also include five cases where bears preyed on livestock and another five involving property damage.

This builds on the 116 bears euthanized last year — a decline from 2017, when 216 bears were euthanized after a spring freeze that killed off natural food sources — and a slew of encounters that went viral on social media, such as the bear that walked into the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park or the bear caught on camera breaking into a car in Boulder.

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“It’s unfortunately kind of routine at the moment,” said Jennifer Standlee, an education specialist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

And it’s also not the bears’ fault.

A sedated orphan bear cub waits for wildlife managers with Colorado Parks and Wildlife to transfer it from a cage to a man-made den on the north slope of Pikes Peak. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“It’s more about human behavior, not bear behavior,” Standlee said.

People don’t lock up their trash cans, or they leave bird feeders out. They keep food in their cars — even just a French fry that fell on the floor is enough to attract a keen-nosed bear, she said.

And each time a bear has a close encounter with human life and is rewarded with food creates more incentive for the bear to return, more brazen. Standlee gives the almost comically cliched example of a bear breaking into a house to steal a cooling pie off a window sill — except, she says, this has really happened. That bear only became so bold, she said, because people didn’t take steps to deter it sooner.

MORE: Wildlife officials hoping man-made dens help orphaned cubs of Colorado’s bad-news bears get back on their paws

Warning people that their behavior will get bears put down doesn’t seem to change human habits much, Standlee said. So Parks and Wildlife has shifted focus by trying to make the consequences personal to the people — by showing them photos of torn-apart cars or busted house windows.

“It makes it real,” she said. “It’s not just a story I’m telling you. It’s not something I’m telling you that you have to care about because you live in Colorado.”

And this is where a new exhibit at the Denver Zoo comes in.

Visitors enter Harmony Hill, the Denver Zoo’s new grizzly bear exhibit, on May 15, 2019. (John Ingold, The Colorado Sun)

Zoo CEO Bert Vescolani likes to tell the story of when he first arrived in Denver last year — and found nightly newscasts awash in reports of break-ins by black bears. At the time, the zoo was looking to upgrade the exhibit for its grizzly bears, under some pressure from federal regulators who had documented that the bears’ nearly 100-year-old exhibit was too cramped and stressing them out.

Those two pieces clicked into place for Vescolani or other zoo leaders. Why not create an exhibit for grizzly bears — nevermind that they are considerably bigger than Colorado’s black bears and almost certainly extinct in the wild here — that will also serve as a way to teach people about how to behave in bear country?

The result is Harmony Hill, which replaces the 2,000 square feet the zoo’s two grizzlies used to occupy at Bear Mountain with 8,000 square feet in what was once the home of the zoo’s polar bears.

As a habitat, Harmony Hill has a lot more dirt and sand than the bears’ previous habitat, which was mostly concrete. And it’s currently rather plain, the result of a conscious decision to give the bears some time to decide where they most like to hang out or to dig before the zoo fills in the space with grass and other plants, said Hollie Colahan, the zoo’s vice president of animal care.

But what has Vescolani most excited — often using the word “interactive” — and brought Standlee to speak at the grand opening earlier this week are the signs and displays intended to teach people how their behavior has an impact on bears.

So, there is a camp site that models what Standlee said is the ideal way to store food when backpacking. And there’s a mock living room that shows how dog food left on the patio could attract bears to your home.

The zoo exhibit isn’t a substitute for more targeted outreach to people who live in bear country, Standlee said. But it’s another piece that could help the state keep more of its bears alive.

“It’s bringing what we’re talking about to life,” she said.

John Ingold

John Ingold is a co-founder of The Colorado Sun and a reporter currently specializing in health care coverage. Born and raised in Colorado Springs, John spent 18 years working at The Denver Post. Prior to that, he held internships at the Rocky Ford Daily Gazette, the Colorado Springs...