Bear hunting eyed to limit population, conflicts |

Bear hunting eyed to limit population, conflicts

Published: Stewart Oksenhorn The Aspen Times

ASPEN – The number of black bears killed by hunters in the Aspen area increased in 2010 after Colorado Parks and Wildlife issued more licenses to try to reduce the population and potentially decrease conflicts between bruins and humans.

State wildlife officials decided in 2009 to issue more licenses for the fall bear hunt in 2010 in what’s known as data analysis unit B-11, a vast geographical area that stretches from Vail Pass to McClure Pass and from north of Vail to south of Aspen.

It bumped up the number of licenses from 585 to 630. The number of bears “harvested” increased to 69 in 2010 from 33 in 2009 and 43 in 2008, according to the agency’s website.

“We’re kind of accomplishing what we wanted to do. We’re harvesting a few more bears,” said Perry Will, area wildlife manager.

He said it is too soon to tell if the increase in black bear hunting licenses will result in a long-range reduction in population or reduce the number of conflicts between bears and humans.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife also tracks harvests within smaller geographic areas called game management units. In the two units that comprise most of the Roaring Fork Valley, there were 15 bears harvested by hunters in 2008 and 20 in 2009. The number increased to 34 in 2010 after more licenses were issued, according to the agency’s website.

The number of licenses available to hunters remained the same in 2011. Harvest data isn’t available for last year.

“My assumption is it’s down a scoosh,” Will said.

No decisions have been made yet about whether to increase the number of bear-hunting licenses for the Aspen and Vail areas for the fall 2012 bear hunt. The season starts in early September and carries into the fall. Spring bear hunts are prohibited in Colorado by a vote of the people.

In the bigger picture, Colorado Parks and Wildlife staff recently told the agency’s governing board that estimates of black bears in Colorado are low. The agency had long estimated there were 10,000 to 12,000 bears in the state.

The estimate is under scrutiny by the agency because bear conflicts with humans has soared since the mid-1990s.

The biggest problems in the Roaring Fork Valley have come in years when bears’ natural food supplies suffered from drought or a late frost. A record number of bears were euthanized by wildlife officers in Pitkin County in 2009. There were 20 bears put down as well as 35 relocated that year.

“That’s bad. It shouldn’t be that way,” Will said of the euthanizing. Wildlife officials would rather see hunters harvesting bears than wildlife officers having to put them down after conflicts, he said.

Bill Kane, of Basalt, and Dorothea Farris, of Carbondale, are on the 14-member Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission. They said the agency is trying to get a better count on black bear populations. Anecdotally, the number of bears is up, Kane said, and information is clear that conflicts are up.

The commission will likely be asked in April or May to make a policy decision to issue more bear-hunting licenses, Kane said. He doesn’t view it as a tough decision, based on information from the experts. It appears clear that more licenses are needed to reduce the population of bears.

Kane said the number of licenses will be “tweaked.”

“I don’t think they’re going to drastically increase the number of licenses,” he said.

Farris said she would only favor boosting the number of hunting licenses if Parks and Wildlife tries to increase habitat and reduce conflicts. Bear habitat has been drastically reduced over the past couple of decades, during the boom of development in rural areas of the state, she said. A study under way in the Durango area will help determine premium bear habitat. That habitat will be sought from landowners such as ranchers, she said. Conservation easements could open valuable habitat to bruins.

Bear-friendly regulations also must be expanded and enforced in bear country, Farris said. Rules in Aspen and Pitkin County require property owners to keep trash in bear-resistant containers and eliminate access to bird feeders, barbecue drippings and other sources of food.

“The philosophy is not to greatly increase the number of bear that can be hunted,” Farris said. “We’re not going to solve (conflicts) by shooting the ones that are problems.”

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