Bringing it Home: Spring bear hunt debate spurs passions
April 13, 2014
Editor's note: "Bringing It Home" runs weekends in The Aspen Times and focuses on state, national or international issues that have ties to or impacts on the Roaring Fork Valley.
Ontario, Canada, has reignited a debate about the value of spring bear hunts as a tool to reduce the bruin population and cut down on conflicts with humans.
It's a debate that flares up occasionally in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley, particularly when natural food sources are scarce and bears resort to dumpster-diving or invading homes for man-made food.
Ontario will start a two-year pilot program by allowing black bear hunting from May 1 to mid-June in eight regions surrounding populated areas where bear-human conflicts are greatest.
“We kill just as many bears now as when we had a spring bear hunt.”
Colorado Parks and Wildlife
The provincial government contends that efforts to trap and relocate problem bears have been ineffective, according to Ontario media. Critics, including famed animal-rights advocate and former "Price is Right" host Bob Barker, have labeled the spring hunt "barbaric." Critics' main beef is that cubs get orphaned when sows are killed.
Ontario banned spring bear hunts in 1999, following the direction Colorado went seven years earlier. Animal-rights activists got a measure on the Colorado ballot in 1992 to ban the spring bear hunt and outlaw the use of dogs and bait by bear hunters. Measure 10 was approved overwhelmingly by 70 percent of voters, despite opposition by some hunting groups and agricultural lobbies.
Increased hunting in fall
The lack of a spring bear hunt is blamed by critics for sending black bear populations soaring — as well as conflicts in some years. But two local wildlife experts said they don't believe a spring bear hunt would affect the conflicts.
"We kill just as many bears now as when we had a spring bear hunt," said Perry Will, Area 8 wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. He oversees a region that includes the Roaring Fork Valley.
The wildlife division started issuing more licenses for hunting black bears in the fall of 2010 for an area known as data analysis unit B-11, which stretches from Vail Pass to McClure Pass. The agency decided that more licenses were warranted given a growing bear population.
It resulted in a slightly higher number of bears "harvested" in 2010 and 2011 compared to 2008-09, according to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife website. "We have maintained that (increase)," Will said.
Statewide, the fall black bear hunt has resulted in significantly more bears "harvested" in the decade between 2003 and 2013. There were 11,254 licenses issued for all manners of hunting in fall 2003. There were 603 bears killed for a success rate of 5 percent.
There were 15,053 licenses issued in 2013 and 1,106 bears killed for a success rate of 7 percent, according to the wildlife division.
Will believes it is a coincidence that black bear populations have climbed in Colorado in the 22 years since the spring bear hunt was abolished. He said he doesn't think there is a cause-and-effect relationship.
Returning to historic populations
Jonathan Lowsky, a wildlife biologist and consultant in Basalt who owns Colorado Wildlife Science LLC, said he personally isn't for or against a spring bear hunt, but he doesn't believe allowing a spring hunt would influence the number of conflicts.
"The harvest hasn't really changed in Colorado, going from two seasons to one," Lowsky said, echoing Will.
In addition, the bears that create problems by seeking human food sources aren't the bears that would get killed during a spring hunting season, he said. The problem bears generally are found in populated areas where there are restrictions on hunting.
Lowsky said he believes the black bear population is increasing in Colorado because the habitat is some of the best in the country. The Roaring Fork Valley provides abundant numbers of chokecherry, serviceberry and acorns from oak brush.
In addition, he said he understands from talking to terrestrial biologists with Colorado Parks and Wildlife and longtime former state wildlife officers familiar with western Colorado that ranchers, particularly sheep ranchers, would shoot predators such as bear on site. In addition, the U.S. Wildlife Services and its predecessor had a predator-control program that was once much more intense than it is today. The program sometimes would use poisoned meat to bait predators — and indiscriminately kill animals that weren't causing a problem.
"Black bear took a hit from that," Lowsky said. "You know bears, they'll eat anything."
The drastic decrease in sheep herding in the Roaring Fork Valley and many other parts of western Colorado has made a huge difference in wildlife populations.
"The bear population are returning to where they should be," Lowsky said. "We're supposed to have a lot of bears" based on the habitat available for them.
Limited interest in bear hunting
Given the limited interest in hunting bear, Lowsky said it's his professional opinion that reinstituting a spring hunt wouldn't have much of an effect on the population.
Will concurred. During years absent of drought and late, killer frosts, the natural food crops that are so abundant in parts of the state do well. That encourages robust reproduction rates in bears, he said.
Data suggests that in poor natural food years, some bears find human food sources, which also keeps the birth rate high, he said.
The condition of natural food sources plays a huge role in human-bear conflicts in Aspen. In 2012, when berry crops were depleted by drought, the Aspen Police Department responded to 1,042 calls regarding bears. In 2013, when the crop was much healthier, the number of calls plummeted to 54, according to the police department.
It's too early to tell what this year will bring. The Aspen-area snowpack is well above average, so plants will get off to a great start. "So far, it's looking good," Will said. But a spring frost or summer drought could change the picture — and likely increase the demands for a spring hunt.