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People are effectively training bears to get into trouble, and Colorado wildlife officials are sick of it

From a new way of tracking incidents to more-assertive forms of hazing, frustrated CPW officers are trying to change bears’ behavior because humans are reluctant to change theirs

A bear paws through garbage cans in this undated photo. (DJ Hannigan, Colorado Parks and Wildlife)
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OURAY — The bear was immense by Colorado standards, 394 pounds of muscle and fur, and it lay sprawled across the necropsy table as the prime suspect in a murder.

Days earlier, in August 2009, wildlife officers had been called to a grisly scene at a house outside Ouray, where a frail, 74-year-old woman named Donna Munson lived. As friends would later recount, Munson had a passionate love of animals, regularly leaving grains and dog food out to feed deer, elk, skunks, raccoons and other wildlife. Bears were frequent visitors, too, and Munson loved them perhaps most of all. She tossed food out her windows for them and wrapped her porch in wire fencing to provide some protection while watching them, even as wildlife officers repeatedly warned her to just stop feeding them.

Then came the call.

“I got the call, and I knew immediately it had to be her,” said District Wildlife Manager Kelly Crane, who had personally spoken to Munson multiple times about the danger of feeding bears and wrote her a letter warning her it was illegal.

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Sheriff’s deputies arrived and found Munson’s bloodied body lying outside her house. The coroner later determined she had been killed by deep slashes to her head and neck. Wildlife officers concluded she had been attacked by one of the bears she fed and was dragged outside the protective fencing. Two aggressive bears were killed on the property in the days after Munson’s body was found.

But to know for sure what happened, authorities had to perform a necropsy, the animal version of an autopsy. Inside the bigger bear’s stomach, they found the evidence they were looking for: pieces of human flesh. They had their culprit.

Munson’s death, the last fatal bear attack in Colorado, shocked the state. News accounts carried details from Durango to Sterling. Columnists and commenters wrote that her death should be a wake-up call to the dangers of feeding bears — intentionally or unintentionally — and making them habituated to humans.

“We hope we can take this horrible, tragic situation and change people’s behavior, and at least take a little bit of positive with it,” Tyler Baskfield, then a spokesman for the state wildlife department, told the Montrose Daily Press.

A bear captured on a security camera moving around a home in Ouray. (Provided by Gregg Cawlfield)

Bear attacks, human causes

But 10 years later, much of human behavior in Colorado remains unchanged. More communities have requirements for bearproof trash cans and Dumpsters, but too often those receptacles go unlocked. More residents in bear country are educated about the need to keep food inside, but too often they leave out bird feeders or other obvious temptations.

In 2019, there have been at least seven incidents in which a bear attacked and injured a person in Colorado, according to news accounts and Parks and Wildlife reports. And, although those incidents have been spread across the state, from the Front Range to the mountain ski towns to the southwest, they share a common thread: Humans, somewhere along the way, did something to invite the attacks.

Bears have twice leapt from trash bins to attack people this year. They have entered homes or clawed through tents chasing the smell of food. In the first reported attack of the year, on Memorial Day near Aspen, a bear suddenly lunged at a woman on a popular hiking trail and bit her leg before running off. When authorities found the bear and killed it, they discovered the bear’s stomach contained a massive quantity of commercial birdseed and little else.

Pitkin County, alone, saw three bear attacks this year. Vail reported a sharp rise in bear problems. Campsites in Boulder, Clear Creek and Larimer counties saw a “significant increase” in bears seeking food in tents or backpacks. In Breckenridge last winter, two bears didn’t hibernate because they continued to find plentiful food in unsecured trash bins.

Coloradans have effectively been training bears how to misbehave on a massive scale. And wildlife officials have had enough.

Clockwise from top left: The stomach contents of a bear euthanized in Boulder after bluff charging wildlife officers; a bear cub crushed underneath an unsecured Dumpster it was attempting to climb into; the stomach contents of a bear euthanized after breaking into a home in Pine and attacking a man; the stomach contents, almost all birdseed, of a bear euthanized after biting a woman on a trail near Aspen. (Provided by Colorado Parks and Wildlife)

Exasperated, they have shifted toward a bolder communication strategy in the hopes of grabbing the public’s attention. They have released photos showing the stomach contents of bears they had to put down — granola bar wrappers, Tootsie Rolls and slices of lunch meat included. When a bear cub this summer in Jefferson County tried to climb into an open Dumpster only to have it fall on him and crush him to death, CPW officials released that photo, too.

But this season, now coming to an end as bears finish up the nonstop eating of their hyperphagia phase and den up for the winter, also marked the start of two major initiatives that CPW officials hope will change bear behavior for the better — because doing that might be easier than changing human behavior.

Nearly 5,000 incidents

Kelly Crane opened the app on her cellphone and pointed at the cluster of red dots on the map in western Colorado.

Here in Area 18, covering Ouray, Montrose and San Miguel counties, she’s one of seven Colorado Parks and Wildlife officers. From the time the app launched April 1 to now, Crane has logged 264 conflicts involving humans and bears or mountain lions through late summer, mostly clustered in a hot spot around the city of Ouray. And this wasn’t what she would consider a particularly busy year.

The app is the newest tool at wildlife officer’s disposal to collect data on human-wildlife interactions across the state. The app helps wildlife officers collect information instantly on bear-human interactions. They record incidents as soon as they happen, and the reports are detailed enough to include check-off boxes for what was involved in the incident (things such as beehives, bird feeders and other food sources), whether property damage occurred and whether the officers warned people to stop doing something.

Through mid-October, wildlife officers had recorded 4,941 incidents involving bears. Those could be something as simple as a sighting in a populated area, or as serious as a home break-in or an attack.

The northwest region of the state, which includes many of the state’s resort communities, has seen the most reports: 1,893. But reports are distributed almost evenly across the rest of the state. The northeast, including the northern Front Range, has seen 1,150, the southwest 1,056 and the southeast 842.

Wildlife officers and others have killed 89 bears this year, compared with 116 last year and 216 in 2017, when a crash in natural food sources sent bears foraging in populated areas en masse.

District Wildlife Manager Kelly Crane with a black bear tranquilized in her district. The bear has been outfitted with a tracking collar that allows managers to see how far away the bear ran after hazing and how long it stayed away. (Provided by Kelly Crane)

Crane said the app also keeps track of the amount of time officers spend dealing with human conflicts with bears and mountain lions. It also tracks the efforts they make to avoid killing so-called nuisance animals, which Crane said she believes has been historically underreported.

“Some people think we just run out and we’re happy to shoot bears, and that’s not the case at all,” she said.

For years, the state’s protocol for dealing with problem bears focused on relocation. A bear that had a run-in with humans was tranquilized, ear-tagged and moved at least 50 miles away. When Crane first took the district wildlife officer job in Ouray County, folks called and expected her to respond and act as a bear-removal service.

“Everybody’s like, ‘Take them to the forest,’” she said. “That’s the forest, right up the hill.”

District Area Wildlife Manager Renzo DelPiccolo examining bear-resistant trash cans in Ouray. Some of the containers require a step by humans to keep bears out. This one wasn’t secured with the chain. (Erin McIntyre, Ouray Plaindealer)

Good bear habitat for relocation that isn’t near a populated area and has enough food sources for the animals is getting harder and harder to find, District Area Wildlife Manager Renzo DelPiccolo said.

“We’re running out of places,” he said. “Everybody thinks there’s this nice utopia to send bears, and there isn’t one. We need to start figuring out how to deal with them where they are.”

While wildlife officers respond to calls involving bears or other animals, often they don’t have control over the things that created the situation. For example, significant improvement in limiting human interactions and food sources in Ouray didn’t happen until recently, when the wildlife department worked with Justin Perry, the former police chief who is now the city administrator, Crane said.

“We need to solve the root problem,” she said. “And it’s not just us, it’s all the mountain towns across the West.”

Citations are rare

It’s against the law in Colorado to deliberately feed wild bears. But proving those cases is another matter.

Donna Munson, for instance, always denied to authorities that she was feeding the bears, blaming it on someone who used to live there, DelPiccolo said. He recalled staking out the neighborhood where Munson lived. Wildlife officers spent evenings and nights stationed at a house under construction next door, trying to get a clear view of what was going on at Munson’s place.

Although they tried for several nights, the thick vegetation hampered surveillance. They couldn’t obtain definite evidence Munson was feeding bears.

“We sat there and saw all these bears coming out of the woods, down to the house,” he said. “They just kept coming.”

After the initial two bears were killed after Munson’s death, Crane remembers having to kill eight or nine more that had become habituated to humans and kept coming back to the property. It was a frustrating time for her, as locals told her stories about how they knew for years that Munson was feeding bears, yet had not reported it nor provided evidence for anything more to be done.

DelPiccolo doesn’t think that sort of behavior would fly now.

“People are more educated about bears now, and socially, feeding them isn’t acceptable anymore,” he said.

A man in Durango was fined $1,000 in 2018 for his third offense of feeding bears. A Colorado Springs woman was arrested in 2015 after multiple violations. Otherwise, citations for intentional feeding have been rare since Munson’s death.

But it’s the more mundane behavior — less deliberate and more negligent — that has proven to be a much bigger problem.

Two bear cubs orphaned after a homeowner in Castle Pines shot and killed their mother move around their new home at a wildlife rehab center at Frisco Creek. The cubs’ mother was killed as it tried to break into the resident’s home. The resident, who has not been identified, was previously warned about removing bird feeders and was charged with illegally feeding wildlife. (Provided by Colorado Parks and Wildlife)

Earlier this year, wildlife officers killed a bear displaying aggressive behavior at Ridgway State Park. The young sow was attracted to a group of campers in the middle of the night by the scent of food left in a teenager’s tent. Despite the group yelling and running to their cars, the bear didn’t leave the area, and wildlife officials killed it, because it wasn’t showing fear of humans or a desire to escape.

But no citation was issued to the group for having food at camp, despite the state park providing bear-resistant locking food containers for them to use. DelPiccolo said the philosophy behind issuing citations comes into play. Although he’s definitely going to ticket someone who poaches animals or who fishes without a license, this is a different situation.

“Somebody bringing food into their tent, that isn’t something we’re going to write a ticket for,” DelPiccolo said. “Part of the goal of citation is to change behavior. That kid’s behavior is changed forever, I guarantee you.”

State law allows wildlife officers also to issue a citation to people who have already been warned to remove food sources and who continue to provide them, whether it’s open trash containers or a hummingbird feeder full of sugar water. But for visitors, some don’t get a chance to be warned before the bears inflict damage.

Over Labor Day weekend, a sow and her cub ransacked an open-topped Jeep without doors at the KOA campground near Ouray. The bears tore open totes filled with freeze-dried food and cereals, containers that the Jeep owner believed were impossible for the bears to open.

“There was nothing bearproof about what she was doing,” Crane said.

Longtime residents can be a problem, too.

In late June, CPW officers charged a Castle Pines resident with a misdemeanor for attracting wildlife after the resident killed a bear trying to break into their house. The resident had been warned before to remove bird feeders. The incident left two bear cubs orphaned.

Ian Petkash, a district wildlife manager with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, uses maple syrup to bait a bear trap in a residential subdivision near Elevenmile Reservoir in Park County on June 19, 2019. Petkash was hoping to catch a bear that had tried to break into a home in the subdivision. (John Ingold, The Colorado Sun)

But that approach is not the norm. A few days prior to the Castle Pines incident, CPW officer Ian Petkash — whose territory covers the eastern half of Park County — drove into a small residential subdivision near Elevenmile Reservoir to set a trap for a bear that had tried to gnaw its way into a house. Hummingbird feeders hung on nearly every porch. When Petkash brought that up to residents, many explained they thought it was OK because they brought the feeders in at night or kept them hung up high.

Rather than whipping out his ticket book, Petkash patiently explained why that’s not enough. He encouraged them to ditch the feeders altogether and plant hummingbird-friendly flowers instead. Bird baths are another way to bring in birds but not bears.

“I want to inspire them to be good stewards, so I try to use education to the fullest extent possible,” he said.

After talking with residents, Petkash drove to the community’s trash dump. Inside an easily climbed wooden fence stood four Dumpsters, all with locking bars across the top to secure them from bears. One by one, Petkash tested them. Only one was actually locked.

He sighed.

“For a bear,” he said, “this is like an odor gold mine.”

A bear hops a gate in Ouray. (Provided by Gregg Cawlfield)

New methods of hazing

Crane, the wildlife officer in Ouray, said things have gotten better in some ways. When she started the job in 2001, Ouray didn’t have bear-resistant trash cans. It was common to see bears walking down Main Street at 2 a.m., scattering garbage as they went, she said.

But the limits to how much people have been willing to adapt to protect bears is frustrating. Last month, for instance, a bear ripped the door off a padlocked standing freezer in an alley behind a Ouray restaurant. It wasn’t the first time the bear had broken into the freezer.

“We’re an intelligent species – we should be able to figure out cause and effect, but it’s very difficult to get people to change their behavior,” she said.

That has led wildlife officials to a hard realization: Maybe the best way to prevent bear-human conflicts is by teaching the bears, not the humans. So, CPW has begun to experiment with better ways to make bears scared of populated places and the people who live there.

Wildlife officers last year began a study with the Ouray Police Department to see whether police officers could be used on the front lines of “hazing” bears — that is, making them want to get the heck out of town. The police officers shoot the bears with rubber buckshot and yell at them, while the wildlife officers use Tasers. CPW is hoping to learn which nonlethal methods work best.

After the bears flee, the wildlife officers can track them if they’re wearing GPS collars and see how far away they ran, and detect whether they stayed away and for how long.

Crane is careful to discern a bear’s behavior prior to delivering the shock of the stun gun.

“If they’re eating fallen fruit in someone’s yard, I’m not going to do it then,” she said. “Fruit is a natural food source, so we don’t want to discourage them from doing that.”

While the wildlife department hasn’t authorized other agencies to taze bears, that’s something that could be considered later if the study proves the method to be more effective than other nonlethal deterrents. Anecdotally, the wildlife officers said tazed bears seem to be running farther from town after getting zapped and staying away longer, at least in Ouray. One bear stayed away from town for six weeks this summer after being tazed, she said.

This year should provide more data than last year, the first year of the study, Crane said. Last year was a good food year for bears, with plentiful natural forage, which didn’t give them as much incentive to venture into populated areas. But this year, “they’re thinking, ‘I might go into town and I might get zapped, but I’m going to get food,’” Crane said. “They’re desperate.”

Samson, a Belgian malinois trained to help Colorado Parks and Wildlife haze bears, poses atop a bear trap with his handler, District Wildlife Manager Ian Petkash, on June 19, 2019 near Hartsel. (John Ingold, The Colorado Sun)

In Park County, Petkash has begun his own hazing study, using one of CPW’s three K-9 officers to chase bears away from the site where they are caught. He hopes that will make bears more fearful of the places they were getting into trouble. In the handful of chases Petkash did this summer, none of the bears returned to the place where they were hazed, he said.

The idea is based on a program in Washington state, where officers send specially bred bear-hunting dogs chasing after just-released bears. But Petkash’s dog, Samson, is a less-specialized Belgian malinois that can be used for law-enforcement tasks when not hazing bears. So, to minimize the risk of Samson getting himself into a fight he can’t win, Petkash keeps him on a long leash and goes on the chase himself, too.

The result is perhaps the wildest 30 seconds in wildlife management, as Samson and Petkash dig in their feet in preparation for a bear’s release and then — whoosh — off they go, Petkash shouting “GO ON, BEAR! GET OUTTA HERE, BEAR!” while Samson strains at the lead and the fleeing bear leads them on a slalom course around trees and over fallen branches.

It’s a lot, he knows — the training, the risk of injury, the fitness demands. But Petkash said it’s worth it.

Driving away from the subdivision near Elevenmile Reservoir, he began thinking about the alternative. In his six years on the job, he has killed six bears because they kept coming back to food sources that people had made so easy for them to get. Six preventable deaths.

“The darkest days of my career are when I’ve had to put down bears,” he said.

Normally chatty, Petkash grew quiet. Samson settled down in the kennel behind Petkash’s seat. The loudest sound was that of his truck tires rumbling over the cracked pavement.

“Yeah, that sucks,” he said. “By far and away, the worst part of this job.”

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