It’s not open season on bears
September 12, 2012
ASPEN – While it’s currently legal to hunt bears with a permit – and within a designated wildlife management area – it’s not OK to shoot them on your property unless a human life is in danger, a Colorado Parks and Wildlife official said Tuesday.
Mike Porras, a spokesman for the state agency, on Tuesday addressed the local rumors that his department has adopted an unwritten policy of turning a blind eye to bear shootings that occur on private property but outside the home.
Wildlife agents investigate every such shooting to determine if they are justified, Porras said. In fact, a Pitkin County man was fined more than $1,300 last month after killing a bear in the Swiss Village subdivision south of Carbondale. In that incident, he believed his dogs were threatened – even though the bear was up a tree when he shot it.
“If a person breaks into somebody’s house, the homeowner is obviously able to protect themselves using lethal force – same thing with a bear, if a person or a loved one is threatened,” Porras said. “They don’t need permission to handle something like that as necessary.”
If a bear is simply on someone’s property, but not behaving in a life-threatening manner, a homeowner doesn’t have the right to simply gun it down, Porras said.
“We wouldn’t look the other way in that type of situation,” he said.
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Bears have been a nearly ubiquitous presence in the Aspen area over the past two months. The spring drought dampened their mountainside food supply and they have resorted to breaking into homes on the outskirts of town and carousing through the city’s downtown alleys in their quest for sustenance.
In August alone, Aspen Police had to deal with 292 phone calls concerning bears, a massive increase from 38 calls in the same month last year. Through Friday, state Parks and Wildlife Department agents have put down 29 problem bears in Area 8, which includes the Roaring Fork and Eagle valleys. Another 17 bears have been relocated from areas where they were causing a disturbance.
Porras said hazing is the recommended method of dealing with bears near one’s home or business. The department will provide 12-gauge rubber shot to homeowners who request it. Shouting at a bear and making other loud noises in its presence are other effective ways of moving a bear along, he said.
He said people in communities with significant bear populations often wonder why feeding stations haven’t been set up in the mountains to satisfy the bears’ hunger as well as to keep them away from humans.
“The suggestions seem simple enough: drop dog food from helicopters, collect restaurant waste and put it in the woods, take up a donation to buy some kind of ‘bear chow’ that will keep the bears from coming into town and risking their lives by rummaging through trash and homes,” he said.
There are biological reasons to support the argument that intentionally feeding bears is a bad idea, Porras said.
“Bears, like most animals, are opportunistic feeders – they want food that is easy to find,” he said. “Unfortunately, easy food often comes from people.”
Whether it is trash, birdfeeders, barbecue grills, pet food or a backyard crab apple tree, bears have adapted to a new food supply. As long as the easy-to-find human food is available, bears will incorporate it into their diet, Porras said.
And that means they are likely to become dependent on it.
Placing food in areas outside town would feed bears that are already in those areas, he said. This would provide human-source food for bears that are already surviving off of natural food sources. The bears that are in town, being fed by careless garbage disposal, could stay in town and eat. Thus, urban bears would have little reason to look elsewhere.
“Bears aren’t herd animals,” Porras said. “They don’t like to eat together like deer or elk. Providing feeding areas for bears would only feed the biggest, oldest and strongest bears. Yearling bears and cubs that are most susceptible to starvation would merely be lured into confrontations with bigger bears. Those little bears might actually become part of the big bears’ food chain.”
Some people have suggested planting natural food items such as berries and oaks for the bears in hope of alleviating food shortages, Porras said.
“The same weather events that cause natural food-production failures will also affect the planted shrubs,” Porras said. “Where possible, we’ve done habitat-enhancement projects for animals, including black bears, but all natural habitat is subject to weather whims.”
If the bear habitat in Colorado cannot support current bear populations because of reoccurring drought, rapid human population growth, expanding recreational use of public lands and booming energy development, the population of bears may need to decrease.
“Over time, food shortages because of lost habitat and changing weather will reduce the bear population by reducing breeding success,” Porras said.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife continues to search for new information about bear management in urban areas, he added.
“We’re currently working on a major research project in the Durango area that will assess management approaches for dealing with human-bear conflict situations in and around our communities,” Porras said.