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Take care, save a bear

So far during the 2012 summer, seven black bears in the Pagosa area have been trapped by Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials. Out of those seven bears, two were euthanized in Pagosa. Another one was euthanized in New Mexico. Another one of the bears was killed while crossing the road. All in all, this summer, three black bears have been euthanized in the Pagosa area, and a total of four killed while crossing a street or road.

In addition, wildlife officers for Archuleta County have reported receiving around 50 reports of bears entering homes this year.

Two of these incidents have ended in the death of the bear, the animals killed by homeowners.

The most recent incident took place around 4 a.m. Monday morning at a house located off of U.S. 84. In this incident, the bear had entered the house previously, and the homeowner had taken the necessary precaution in making the bear feel unwelcome. The first time, the bear fled. On Monday morning, however, Wildlife Manager Doug Purcell reported that the bear was in the house instead of fleeing from the homeowner, and it stood its ground.

An investigation ensued and found that the owner was in the right to shoot the bear. Purcell explained that a person must be protecting life, whether human or substantial livestock, to be justified in killing a bear. Seeing a bear in the garage or walking across the porch, Purcell said, is not reason enough for killing a bear.

If you have issues with a bear in the yard, garage or house, contact one of the wildlife officers in the area by calling Archuleta County Combined Dispatch at 731-2160. Dispatch will then direct your calls to the on-duty wildlife officer.

Wildlife Manager Mike Reid said that the reason for the increase in activity is not that the bear population has surged. Bear population, he explained, tends to be fairly stable due to female bears giving birth only every two years. This year, however, there was an early snowmelt, then a late freeze. This affected the main food source for the black bear — oak brush acorns.

Reid has been working in this area for over 20 years. During that time, he says there was only one other year that has come close in terms of the number of bears being spotted in residential areas; and no other years with as many reports of bears in houses.

In the past three weeks, increases in bear sightings could be expected and now might continue to rise until November. This is because the bears have entered hyperphagia, their preparatory phase for hibernation. During this time, bears need to consume 20,000 calories per day. To reach this caloric intake, bears must consume a massive amount of food. One acorn, Reid said referencing a recent study, contains about one calorie. That’s a lot of acorns.

However, bears are very smart creatures. Learning the days a neighborhood puts out their trash and the houses that normally have easy-to-access trash cans filled with leftovers is easier for a bear than to scour a forest during a drought year, foraging for scant berries and acorns.

If a bear has been a consistent nuisance in a neighborhood — entering houses or garages — wildlife managers such as Reid will set a trap in that neighborhood. The trap itself is a large metal cage. Once a bear is trapped, the wildlife officer is called. The bear is administered a tranquilizer. Reid explained that the officer wants to use the lowest dosage possible, because, when the bear is relocated 50 miles away, the officer must keep watch over the bear until it is fully awake and capable of defending itself. After the tranquilizer has put the bear into a sound sleep, the animal is tagged, with a tag in both ears, and has a chip placed just underneath the skin at the back of the head.

“This is not something we like to do because we know what it means to the bear,” Reid said, and then explained that although a bear is relocated 50 miles away, typically the bear will find its way back. This summer, one relocated bear was back at the house in 52 hours. Bears, Reid said, have been known to find their way back from 200 miles way.

“It’s normally not the bear’s fault. It’s the human’s,” Reid said, referring to problem bear-human encounters. This thought was reaffirmed as Reid was driving this reporter around neighborhoods in the Pagosa Lakes area, pointing out negligence in bear-proofing homes. One man came up, saying a bear comes to his neighbor’s house every night, because the neighbor leaves the trash sitting there.

“I haven’t had one bear problem all year,” the man said, adding, “The bears aren’t doing anything wrong. It’s the humans.”

In the neighborhoods, the majority of residents left their garbage cans outside with either no bear-proof closures or inadequate ones.

“Bears are very strong animals. A bungee cord is not going to stop them,” Reid said. Leaving garbage out overnight in cans that are not bear-proof is a huge problem because it is an attractant to bears. Bears have supersensitive noses, able to smell something up to five miles away. Garbage, as everyone knows, has a smell. While to humans it might make the stomach turn, for a bear it means an easy way to pack on needed pounds for hibernation.

Reid says that one option for people who have neither a garage nor shed in which to put their garbage can is to call the trash service and request a bear-proof receptacle.

If a person leaves a garbage can out overnight, they are attracting bears to their property. It is the person’s responsibility to protect their house. If a bear is a nuisance, they should ask themselves, “Am I doing anything to attract bears to my property?” Because even if the person is, the bear will still be the one to blame and possibly will be killed for it.

Colorado Revised Statute 33-6-131 states that, “It is unlawful for any person to place food or edible waste in the open with the intent of luring a wild bear to such food or edible waste.”

There is also Wildlife Commission Regulation 021, which reads, “No person shall fail to take remedial action to avoid contact or conflict with black bears, coyotes or fox, which may include the securing or removal of outdoor trash, cooking grills, pet food, bird feeders or any other similar food source or attractant.”

However, before the person can be fined, the individual must first be given a warning. Reid said that proving intent is very difficult. Plus, he added, when looking at all the garbage cans left out by residents, neither he nor the other wildlife officers have the time to give that many warnings.

Another common problem Reid pointed out are open garage doors and open first floor windows. Just this summer, the Pagosa area of Parks and Wildlife has received over 50 reports of bears inside homes.

“Once a bear finds out there is more food inside, he’s going to try to go back,” Reid said. If a person just baked or cooked and leaves the window open, a screen will not keep a bear from getting inside the house. If there is a deck on an upper story and a tree nearby, a bear will be able to get onto that deck if it smells something. If there is a window open on that deck, a bear will have no problem getting inside.

If keeping the windows open is important during the summer, it is recommended that bars be put on the outside of the windows to keep the bears out.

“This is bear country,” Reid said. “People who move here are moving to bear country.”

Black bears are native to this area of Colorado and their presence in the area predates that of humans. Black bears may be brown, cinnamon or blonde in color. They are naturally shy and wary of people. Purcell explained that the reason trash is dragged into the woods by a bear is because the bear is trying to get away from people. He added that bears are not naturally nocturnal, but often travel at night in order to avoid humans.

In order to keep bears wild and keep bear-human conflicts to a minimum, remember to do the following:

• Keep garbage in a well-secured location; and only put out garbage on the morning of pickup.

• Clean garbage cans with ammonia regularly to keep them odor-free.

• If you don’t have secure storage, put items that might become smelly into the freezer until trash day.

• Don’t leave pet food or stock feed outside.

• Bird feeders should be brought in at this time of year — birds don’t need to be fed during the summer.

• If you have bird feeders: clean up beneath them, bring them in at night, and hang them high so that they’re completely inaccessible to bears.

• Don’t compost. Bears are attracted to the scent of rotting food — and they’ll eat anything.

• Allow grills to burn for a couple of minutes after cooking to burn off grease and to eliminate odors. Clean the grill after each use.

• Clean up thoroughly after picnics in the yard or on the deck. Don’t allow food odors to linger.

• If you have fruit trees, pick fruit before it gets too ripe. Don’t allow fruit to rot on the ground.

• Close garage doors.

• Keep the bottom floor windows of your house closed when you’re not at home.

• Do not keep food in your car; lock car doors.

• Talk to your neighbors and kids about being bear-aware.

For more information, go to the Living with Wildlife section on the Colorado Parks and Wildlife website: http://wildlife.state.co.us/WildlifeSpecies/LivingWithWildlife/Pages/LivingWith.aspx.

lindsey@pagosasun.com

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