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Be smart in bear country

"A wild-bear chace, did never see?” asks the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, in his poem “The Bear Hunt,” and continues musing, “Then hast thou lived in vain. When first my father settled here, ‘twas then the frontier line: the panther’s scream, filled night with fear and bears preyed on the swine.”

Though not romanticizing over the Colorado landscape, the essence of what Lincoln writes can be ascribed to the current situation of bears in Pagosa Country.

When Lincoln wrote this poem in the mid-19th century, it was an earlier time when the bear roamed free in the land, a time before people moved into prime bear country.

Now, the fear of bears is often absent. Many people have moved into more of what was once a wilderness setting, whether for the views or the outdoor recreation. Around Pagosa Springs, much of the wilderness is also prime bear country, and was prime bear country before human development crept in. Now, it is not uncommon in Pagosa Country to hear people speak of a neighborhood bear, to hear of a bear sighting upon getting to work. Stories abound of seeing a bear in the front yard or garage. Some people might even share the story of walking in on a bear eating their birthday cake.

However, this lack of fear and respect for the bear is not healthy for either bear or human.

Joe Lewandowski, public information specialist for the Southwest Region of the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife, reported that during the month of July four bears were killed after being struck by vehicles. During this same time, another four bears in the Pagosa area had to be captured and relocated.

If people are encouraging bears to come around to be photographed, or for some other reason, Lewandowski has a message for them.

“If someone knows of someone intentionally feeding bears, call us, because it is illegal and it is very dangerous,” Lewandowski said, adding, “You are setting a bear up to be euthanized.”

The history of the grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park is a prime example of what can happen when the gap between people and bears disappears. Though Yellowstone park management officially prohibited handfeeding bears in 1902, bears and humans were in close quarters in the park. Many photographs from the ’50s and ’60s show bears coming up to cars, putting their head in the window to be fed. Between 1931-1969 there was an annual average of 48 bear-inflicted human injuries at Yellowstone.

The lesson, of course, is: bears are wild animals meant to be wild.

Lewandowski explained that this time of year through November, people can expect to spot more bears. It’s eating season, and the bears are eating around the clock, around 20,000 calories a day, to prepare for hibernation.

“They need a lot of food. They need to eat, and if there’s easy pickings, just like any other critter or human, they’ll go for the easy meal,” Lewandowski said, adding, “We want them to go out to the wild to find food.”

Since bears have a very keen sense of smell, more so than dogs, when they smell food, they will go for it, even if it involves scurrying through a pet door or climbing through an open window.

Lewandowski recommends various proactive steps residents can take to help keep bears away from their homes and encourage the bears to go back to the forest to forage for food.

• Take down bird feeders. “They know what bird feeders are, and they provide a big reward. They will see it, destroy it and, unfortunately, a lot of bears will get into trouble and have to be put down,” Lewandowski said. He suggests hanging flowers or putting out a bird bath if one wishes to attract birds.

• When cooking and eating strong smelling foods, especially meat, take the trash (skin, bones and whatever will not be eaten) and instead of throwing it in the garbage can, stick it in a bag and put it in the freezer. The morning of trash pickup, stick it in the garbage can.

• Keep garbage cans in a garage, shed or some secure location until the morning of pickup. “Bears figure out what day trash day is,” Lewandowski said, adding that he recommends people periodically wipe their garbage cans out with some ammonia.

• Make sure the garage door is closed. Because the garage is often where the trash, pet food and freezer is, it’s a desirable place for a bear to enter. It is also not too hard for a bear to enter a house through the garage.

• Keep bottom floor windows of the house closed, especially when cooking.

• If you have plum or apple trees, pick the fruit before ripe and take fallen fruit from the ground.

In the case of bear contacts, problem bears in a neighborhood or with information concerning people feeding bears, call the Parks and Wildlife area office at 247-0855.

Content in this story has been modified from original print copy in The SUN.

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