Bear Sightings Jump As They Roam Farther For Food

By John C. Ensslin
COLORADO SPRINGS, CO--Anne Kowalik was taking a friend from Chicago and her twin daughters out to dinner at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, CO recently when one of the girls asked, “Mommy, do you see the bears?”

“Sure honey, we see the bears,” the mom replied, assigning the question to her daughter’s vivid imagination. But as they all turned to look in the dusky light, there by the side of the winding, narrow road were three little bears.

“It was so fantastic– I’ve lived here all my life, and I’ve never seen animals like that in the wild,” Kowalik said before correcting herself.

This wasn’t exactly the wild. It was more like a half-mile from the five-star resort. Many Coloradans have been reporting similar experiences. From the backcountry to the Broadmoor, such encounters have become a lot more frequent as a combination of drought and frost have forced bears to roam farther for food.

Hot, dry weather this summer cut the supply of acorns, while late spring frosts killed off chokecherries and other berries that are a staple of the bears’ diet.

Bear Encounters
As of Aug. 28, wildlife officers had logged 877 bear-human encounters in Colorado. That’s a 75 percent increase over the 502 encounters reported in all of 2006. It is still well shy of the record year of 1995, however, when the CO Division of Wildlife tracked 1,066 bear-human encounters, and of the bone dry year of 2002.

This year’s pace will slow down in a few weeks as bears finish chomping on all available forage before going into hibernation. Another reason for the increased encounters is the loss of bear habitat to residential development.

“Glenwood Springs and Aspen have some of the best black bear habitat in the state,” he said. “If I were a Black Bear, I would live there. And if I were a Black Bear, I could afford to live there.”

Bear Mortality Rate
The fact that bears are more conspicuous this year is not resulting in a higher “nonhunter bear mortality” rate. Through Aug. 28, 107 bears had been killed in nonhunting situations, including road kill and bears killed by wildlife officers or property owners. That’s a much lower rate than in 2002 when 404 bears were killed.

The rate of “two-strike” bears killed after the failure of attempts to trap and relocate them also is down, from 73 in 2002 to 27 so far this year.

“I look at that as a favorable development,” said Division of Wildlife spokesman Tyler Baskfield, who suspects the bears this year are simply younger and easier to break of bad habits.There has been no change, however, in state policy, he said.

“Anytime we see an aggressive bear or a bear that has lost its fear of humans, we’re going to put that bear down,” he said.

John Newkirk, of Evergreen, doesn’t need statistics to know the number of bears passing through his area is way up. Newkirk, a computer systems engineer, has lived for the last 40 years on Snow Valley Ranch, a 60-acre property bounded by a Denver mountain park and a 1,000-acre conservation easement. He has counted eight bears passing through this year, and he’s seen more bears this summer than any time in his memory.

One day recently he was working in his office when he heard “something pushing on my door. I thought it was my 87-year-old dad trying to get in, but it sounded a little funny.”  So he went to look.

“Sure enough, here was this bear pushing on the door,” Newkirk said. “His mama must’ve taught him that if he pushed open enough doors, one would open and there’d be a nice kitchen inside.”

Newkirk yelled at the animal.

“He looked at me very indignant, like I was insulting him,” Newkirk said. “So I pulled out my pistol and put a round over his head. I didn’t want to shoot him, but it was obvious he wasn’t listening to me.”

The bear finally ambled off. –Rocky Mountain News