Colorado bear study is upending assumptions about human encounters

Six-year study by Colorado Parks and Wildlife sheds light on bears in state

Bruce Finley, Amy Brothers and RJ Sangosti
The Denver Post
Colorado Parks and Wildlife researcher Heather Johnson takes two of three cub out of a den, on Raider Ridge in Durango, during a study to determine the influence of urban environments on black bear behavior and population trends, March 06, 2017. Johnson, is heading up a six-year study of bear behavior in the Durango area. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)
RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

DURANGO – Curled up in a den on an acorn-rich hillside, a hibernating bear and her three fuzzy cubs face increasingly perilous conditions.

People in homes 200 yards below constantly tempt them with food — this 180-pound sow knows well how to navigate garbage-scented urban smorgasbords in late summer if acorns and berries vanish. But state policy requires extermination of bears repeatedly caught eating garbage. Record numbers are dying. And the dozing bears also feel warmer temperatures near their rocky den that shorten hibernation.

Now, near the top of the hill, a Colorado Parks and Wildlife research team with a tranquilizer dart on a 6-foot jab pole is creeping toward them.

This den visit is one of the last in a six-year study of black bears in Colorado that challenges core assumptions state wildlife managers have relied on for decades. Rising conflicts with people motivated the CPW study, which will be published this year. Seldom have scientists tracked and monitored so many bears so closely, even analyzing fur to verify what bears ate.

The findings are expected to change human efforts to control bears.

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