Bears, some of them with young cubs, are starting to emerge from hibernation along Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. As they do, there’s a risk they will be killed or have to be euthanized -- something that’s been happening more frequently.
According to the most recent data provided to KUNC, 2,484 bears were killed between 2011 and 2015 by means other than licensed hunting. That’s almost a 75 percent increase over the previous five-year period.
For state biologists, there are several factors behind the rise, including weather impacts.
"When you have bad forage conditions for bears, either because of drought or perhaps a late freeze in spring that harms the flowers that will eventually produce fruit or nuts in the fall, then you have problems with bears not having enough forage," said Jerry Apker, a black bear management specialist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Food failures in the fall are critical because that’s when bears are supposed to be eating more before entering hibernation. That creates a situation with bears moving around the landscape a lot more than they normally might, setting the stage for more encounters with people.
"And when there are more conflicts, there are more bears that are going to die," Apker said. "So that - combined with increased [hunting] licenses - means we have been killing a lot more bears in the state, either through hunter harvest, or as a result of control methods or accidents with vehicles."
Population growth along the Front Range is another factor behind the rise in human-bear encounters. The popularity of Colorado’s outdoors with visitors is another piece of the puzzle.
"For [tourists], a black bear experience is value added to their vacation experience, and so they’re inclined not to do a whole lot to try and prevent it," Apker said. "So all of those things combined, you have an almost perfect storm going on."
Not all bears that come into contact with humans are euthanized. CPW has a two-strike policy, where wildlife officials will tag and relocate a bear that isn’t deemed a threat. However, if it comes back and causes problems again, then Apker said they have no choice other than euthanization. Between 2011 and 2015, state wildlife officials euthanized 421 bears, either because of the two-strike policy or because they were deemed dangerous on the first encounter. That’s 38 more than during the previous five-year span, and 231 more than the period between 2000 and 2005.
People can help reduce the number of human-bear encounters by taking a few simple precautions, Apker said. Homeowners should keep trash secured, and don’t put it out until collection day. Don’t leave pet food outside on porches, and drain hummingbird feeders when the weather warms up.