The bear is back — a sure sign of the tilt toward fall. This morning, when I walked outside, I saw my trash knocked over and spread, then heard that my neighbor’s dumpster had been entirely pushed over, then heard a neighborhood chicken had met its match.
Our bad, I thought, and it is. Knowing that my house is firmly in bear territory, I generally keep my trash inside the garage, hauling it out on the morning of trash pickup, not the night before. I take bird feeders down, I lock my car doors, keep the grill in a secure location. But I’d forgotten about the trash — and the mistake was mine.
The problem, of course, is that my distraction can lead to a bear death. So I paused to look up at the cottonwoods in a nearby field, scanning the crooks and big branches, just checking. Hoping, really. I have seen them a few times dozing up there, and it’s a thrill to see a creature in the wild.
Back inside, and reading the morning papers, I hear about a bear biting a man resting in a hammock, a bear break-in to a wedding venue, and my social media feed was filled with photos of bears on porches, which people think is cute, but is not.
Although black bears still occupy vast areas of North America, bears have lost 90% of their original range, and humans continue to encroach on what remains of bear habitat. Our homes are built in their food sources. It’s not surprising, then, that conflicts between bears and humans have increased dramatically in the last few decades. In fact, these conflicts are related to a third of all bear mortalities in Colorado – and a few very rare tragic encounters for people, too.
Colorado once had grizzlies, and occasional rumors surface that we might still. Officially, though, we are home to only the American Black Bear, Ursus americanas, and there are approximately 10,000-12,000 of them in the state. While it’s true that black bears are Colorado’s largest surviving carnivore, they’re not our most dangerous, and over 90% of a black bear’s diet is grasses, berries, fruits, nuts, plants, insects and scavenged carcasses. They just want to eat the wild stuff, and while their mainstay is vegetation, it’s true that fall brings the need for more calories, so they’ll move to fruits, acorns, or mammals. We all like to eat, after all.
One of my great life moments was the chance to climb in a bear den with some hibernating (and tranquilized) bears. I was with a group of experts finishing a study about this very topic — how to prevent bear-human conflict. The scientists had located a den near Aspen with two hibernating black bears, a sow and her yearling, with the help of a GPS collar that they now wanted to remove. After we’d snowshoed up and up and up — hands down, the most physically demanding day of my life — they’d tranquilized the two bears with the utmost grace and gentleness. Then they’d covered the sow’s face with a soft hat, in order to protect her from getting scratched up, and pulled her partially out of the rocky outcropping in order to gather some samples and get the collar off. Since there wasn’t room for both bears on the ledge, the yearling was left inside the den, and after requesting, I was allowed to climb in and lie between the two bears, my arms out so that I could touch both, run my hands through their fur.
The science of what to do with “nuisance bears” was why we’d snowshoed up there in the first place. The researchers’ study partially dispelled the notion that “a fed bear is a dead bear.” Most bears do not become habituated to human food sources as much as we think they do — they will go back to natural food as soon as those food sources are available, and if humans prevent access to human foods in the first place. In other words, yes, sure, bears are opportunists, but take away the “opportune” part and they won’t be “ists.”
Basically, bears exhibit “behavior plasticity,” a fancy way of saying that they have the ability to change their habits. Bears will return to their preferred Colorado diet of chokecherries, gamble oak, and serviceberry — if we encourage them to remain in the wild.
So after cleaning up my garbage, feeling chagrined, as I well should, I went for my usual walk down the dirt county road, along the first hogbacks of the Colorado Rockies. A fawn and doe stepped quietly out of sight, a red-tailed hawk flew to the cottonwood, the usual magpie greeted me with a squawk. Mainly, though, I was looking down, scanning for scat. Sure enough, I found a pile of seed-laden stuff, and I paused in the quiet morning to gaze up at the foothill. Somewhere in the mountain mahogany, willows, wild plums, and rock outcroppings, a bear was hanging out.
Good. May it always be so. As I fall asleep tonight, I’ll listen for coyotes and owls and maybe a bear, and be grateful, as always, that I live in the company of creatures.
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