Terrain.org Columns.
View Terrain.org Blog.





What a Fool Believes...
by Todd Ziebarth : Editor, Terrain.org

The Black Bear: Another Casualty of Colorado's Hyperdevelopment

In late summer, bear season began in earnest in Colorado. Not the kind in which half-drunken hunters go off and shoot bears for the alleged sport of it. No, this year brought a different kind of bear season to the Centennial State.

According to our local bear experts, lack of moisture in bears' mountainous habitats combined with two spring freezes, one in May and one in June, have left bears without the grasses, nuts and berries for their annual feeding frenzy, which usually lasts from the middle of August until late October.

Bears, many of which weigh about 200 pounds in August, furiously forage to gain up to 80 more pounds before retiring for the winter. In addition to grasses, nuts and berries, bears will eat moths, grubs, fish and dead wildlife. They typically spend about 20 hours a day looking for food and expend about 20,000 calories a day in these searches.

Without their usual supply of weight-gaining foods, bears turn to alternative sources, including beehives, garbage, dog food, vegetable gardens, home refrigerators and domestic animals.

A String of Incidents

Bear season unofficially kicked off on August 1, when a young black bear was spotted in Lakewood, an inner-ring suburb in the western part of the Denver metropolitan area. The bear fled before state wildlife officials arrived on the scene.

In Trinidad, a town in the south-central part of the state near the Colorado and New Mexico border, approximately 15 to 20 bears a night were climbing from river drainages or descending from patches of trees in their quest for food.

In one particular incident in Trinidad, a sow and two cubs searched through garbage bins for goodies in a Wendy's parking lot, while a crowd gathered and watched the bears as if they were viewing the latest edition of the television show "Survivor," in which bears are forced to enter human habitats and survive on cheeseburgers and french fries. As people snapped photographs of the bears, one of the cubs touched a high-voltage wire on a power pole in the parking lot and electrocuted itself.

In Centennial, a suburb in the southern part of the Denver metropolitan area, a 125-pound black bear wandered through the neighborhood before state and local officials shot the bear with four tranquilizer darts and returned it to the mountains. Of course, if the bear returns, it will be killed. According to state wildlife officials, the bear had followed a drainage area into one of the suburb's neighborhoods looking for food, and had not harmed any people.

In Jefferson County, an area that stretches from the western edge of Denver into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, a black bear rambled through neighborhoods near a mall and local elementary school. The 2-year-old, 75-pound bear was tranquilized and driven to an undisclosed location about 50 to 100 miles west of the neighborhood, where it was set free. Again, if the bear returns, it will be killed.

Not even the rich and famous have been able to elude the bears this year, as a black bear wandered through an open sliding glass door into the home of tennis star Chris Evert and former Olypmic ski racer Andy Mill in Aspen, a town in the heart of the Rocky Mountains toward the western part of the state. After wrecking havoc on the garbage containers in the house, Mill confronted the bear, which then duly left through the door in which it had entered.

A People Problem

While run-ins with bears are a common occurrence in the state's more mountainous regions every year, it has been a decade since so many bears have been sighted in the Denver metropolitan area. Compounding the shortage of grasses, nuts and berries this year is the hyper-development of residential areas that has occurred and is occurring on much of the once rural land where the bears are roaming. At one time, this land provided the bears with their necessary fuel for their long winter naps. In fact, according to wildlife manager Susanne Tracey, all of the recently developed areas where there have been bear-human encounters were originally bear habitat, and we have encroached on their habitat.

Perhaps most troubling about these incidents is the behavior of the human inhabitants of these areas. Colorado Division of Wildlife Supervisor Al Trujillo and Trinidad Area Wildlife Manager Jim Aragon expressed irritation with the folks in the Wendy's parking lot who were treating the situation like a zoo. According to Trujillo and Aragon, this type of behavior is only going to get more bears and/or persons maimed or killed.

In the more suburban settings, one of the biggest problems is people's excited reaction to the bears, which can create a mob mentality resulting in a bear chase involving an ever-growing number of people. "What occurs here in the metropolitan area is one bear that happens to be on open space ends up being chased all over the place by the sheriff or by local citizens or people with their dogs out," said Colorado Division of Wildlife spokesman Todd Malmsbury in a recent news article on the bear encounter in Jefferson County.

Reports of carnival-like atmospheres and people treating captured bears like pets, parading by in single file for a look, a picture and a chance to touch the bears further attest to people's questionable reactions to the bears. In addition, quotes from the on-lookers, such as "He was 10 feet from me, and I thought I was going to wrestle the bear," are anything but encouraging.

According to Malmsbury, "It's really a people problem, not a bear problem. If we're going to learn to live with bears and other wildlife in the state, we need to teach people to stop leaving food and other attractants out," among other things.

Precautionary Measures

To force people to behave with the understanding that they live among the bears, a number of mountain towns and counties in Colorado have adopted ordinances calling for wildlife-proof trash containers.

One promising example is Snowmass, Colorado, a mountain town near Aspen, which adopted its ordinance in 1994, when the town was employing 11 people to handle bear problems for three and a half months a year. After a few years and the fining of some habitual human offenders, which range from $50 to $500 and may include a court summons, they have not had to remove or kill a single bear.

Aspen, Pitkin County, Basalt and Steamboat Springs have similar ordinances on the books, and Poncha Springs, Salida and Eagle County are considering them.

At a minimum, persons in mountainous regions where bear sightings are more common as well as persons in formerly rural areas which have been suburbanized in recent years where bear sightings are less common can abide by the following guidelines:
  • Keep trash in bear-proof containers and keep containers in secure buildings.
  • Don't leave pet food outside.
  • Remove bird feeders, including hummingbird feeders, if bears are present.
  • Clean barbeques after each use.
  • Do not put fruit and vegetables in compost piles.
  • Do not feed bears or try to approach them.
  • Keep all lower-level windows and doors tightly closed.
  • If a bear enters your home, open doors and do not get between the animal and its escape route.

As mountain towns and counties that have long dealt with bear-human interactions continue to refine their approaches for dealing with bears in a safe and humane manner, the aggressive development of former rural communities is introducing these challenges to folks more accustomed to the trappings of suburbia. People have to understand with whom they are living, and need to take precautions to respect their fellow animals. Otherwise, as noted by more than one person during this year's bear season, we are going to have problems, and invariably, the animals are going to be the losers.


Todd Ziebarth is a policy analyst at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. He is also a founding editor of Terrain.org. In addition to his regular Terrain.org column, Ziebarth sometimes reviews books and CDs for the journal. He has a master's degree in public administration and a master's degree in urban and regional planning.
Print   :   Blog   :   Next   



"Black Bear Drops By Lakewood," Rocky Mountain News, August 2, 2001, p. 29A.

"Bedtime Story: The 20 Bears," Rocky Mountain News, August 8, 2001, p. 7A.

"Laws Target Bear Problem," Rocky Mountain News, August 9, 2001, p. 7A.

"Bear Enters Tennis Star's Aspen Home," Rocky Mountain News, August 16, 2001, p. 4A.

"Bear Scampers Through Yards Before Capture," Rocky Mountain News, August 16, 2001, p. 4A.

"Bear's 2-day metro foray comes to a tranquil end," The Denver Post, August 16, 2001, p. A-01.

"Bear Causes South Jeffco Stir," Rocky Mountain News, August 17, 2001, p. 7A.

"Nature, humans play roles in urban bear sightings," The Denver Post, August 17, 2001, p. B-01.

"Young bruin captured near school," The Denver Post, August 22, 2001, p. B-01.


Home : Terrain.org. Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments.