Experts say bears suffering a bum rap as ‘vicious critters’
April 25, 2002
A surge in conflicts between humans and bears in recent years and the potential for more this year has wildlife experts urging people to keep their wits if they come in contact with a bruin.
Colorado Division of Wildlife officer Kevin Wright, who patrols the Aspen area, said he constantly battles the misperception that bears are aggressive and prone to attack people.
In fact, he said, “bears are docile by nature and not the vicious critters portrayed in the myths.”
There have been no known attacks by bears on humans in the Roaring Fork or Eagle River valleys, he said. When bears enter a home they are looking for food, “not to chew the leg off somebody,” he said.
And bears that stand on their hind legs are trying to use all their senses to assess a situation, not preparing for attack, according to Wright. He claimed a bear’s intentions were misinterpreted two years by a Basalt Mountain homeowner who shot and killed a sow that he felt was threatening his family.
If people keep their composure when coming into contact with a bear in the wilds or in their homes, they should be fine, Wright said.
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The most important rule is to give the bear an escape route. Wildlife officer Kelly Wood, who patrols the Basalt area, said homeowners who discover a bear in their residence should open their windows and doors and get out of the house. Eventually the bear will leave.
“If a bears gets trapped inside, you’re not going to like what it does,” said Wright. “Don’t ever block its escape route.”
The wildlife officers said people are often startled by encounters with bears and report them to be much larger than reality. The average sow is about 150 to 175 pounds. Typical boars in the Roaring Fork Valley range from 250 to 275 pounds.
Wright said some bruins tip the scales at more than 400 pounds, such as one dubbed Fat Albert, who been known to roam Aspen’s Mountain Valley neighborhood.
Black bears reach maturity and start breeding at about 5 years of age. They live to be 8 to 10 years old, and females only give birth every other year, so their reproduction potential isn’t great.
Wright said 40 to 50 percent of cubs in their first or second year will die in an average year. In a dry year, when berry and acorn crops are scarce, the mortality rate may soar to 70 percent.
The state wildlife division is embarking on an unprecedented campaign to try to educate people about bears and cut down on conflicts between humans and bruins. Wildlife experts feel that the more people know, the more they will alter habits to coexist.
“Bears have adapted to people,” he said. “People need to do the same.”
The DOW is hosting a speech by an internationally known wildlife biologist in Aspen in June. Pamphlets on living with bears are available from the DOW office in Glenwood Springs and at its Web site, http://www.wildlife.state.co.us.
Wildlife officers are also available for consultations with homeowners who have regular troubles with bears. Wright said some homeowners won’t call because of a misperception that a visit from a wildlife officer will count as a “strike” against the bruin. It won’t. A bear only gets a strike when it must be trapped and moved from an area.
The state has a two-strike policy with bears. If they get in trouble for invading civilization twice, they are killed.
Wright said trapping is done only as a last resort because it is ineffective. Almost every bear that is moved 50 miles away is back in the original neighborhood within three days, he said.
While wildlife experts stress that people should do everything possible to avoid attracting bears to civilization, sometimes precautions aren’t enough. Bears who learned to associate food with humans last year may visit homes this year just on a hunch.
If you encounter a bear, he said, try to make sure the bruin associates it with an unpleasant experience. “Bears are intelligent and will respond to negative reinforcement if it’s given consistently,” according to DOW literature.
Wright said some homeowners keep a 5-gallon bucket of water handy and dump it from upstairs windows on a bear sniffing around downstairs. Throw the empty bucket too, he said.
Other homeowners have sprayed bears with a strong stream from a nozzle. Toklat Lodge is undertaking a unique experiment of filling balloons with a little ammonia. The tied balloons are hung above windows and doors. Bears that visit will theoretically paw the balloons and get an unpleasant burning sensation in their eyes and ears.
Wright said make a lot of noise if you encounter a bear. Chances are it will drive them off.
Chances are that a bear that threatens to charge is just bluffing, according to Wright. They will charge to within 10 feet but very rarely carry through.
Wright stressed that homeowners cannot shoot a bear just because it is on their deck or on their property. They can only shoot and kill when life or livestock is at risk.