Parks and Wildlife aims to curb bear conflicts in Aspen area

Rick Carroll
The Aspen Times
One of the many bears seen in and around Aspen last year.
Aspen Times/File photo |

Bear facts

The Black Bear Management Plan, drafted by a biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, aims to reduce human-bear conflicts in the Roaring Fork and Eagles valleys. Here’s a snapshot of some of the report’s findings.

• Bear mortalities totaled 18 in 1993; that figure was 161 in 2012

• In 2007, 2009 and 2012, which are considered the past three food-failure years, an average of 63 bears were killed either from euthanization or vehicle strikes

• An average of 83 bears have died over the last 10 years, while the average for the last three years is 113

• Assuming the area has a population of 1,250 bears, the mortality rate from 2011 to 2013 was 9 percent

A two-pronged approach to curb the number of black bear-human conflicts in the Roaring Fork and Eagle valleys highlights a report drafted by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

The Black Bear Population Management Plan suggests increasing the number of black bears harvested through seasonal hunts while strictly enforcing trash ordinances.

Prepared by terrestrial wildlife biologist Julie Mao, the draft will be presented to Pitkin County commissioners at a work session today. The meeting comes as Parks and Wildlife collects public input in an effort over the next two months to implement a bear population management strategy for the area that covers 1.83 million acres and has elevations topping 14,000 feet and dipping low as 5,700 feet. The entire area — known as B-11 — is considered black bear habitat, but bruin densities vary within the region.

Human-bear conflicts can be as basic as someone seeing a bear in their backyard or one breaking into their home or vehicle, and they can result in the bears being killed or relocated by Parks and Wildlife. The report noted that oftentimes during poor natural-food years, bears seek human-food sources. The years 2004, 2007, 2009, 2011 and 2012 were especially bad, with 20, 48, 68, 27 and 46 bears either killed or relocated, respectively.

Physical contact between bears and humans is rare, but incidents do happen. The study notes that since 2004, 10 such encounters have happened in the researched area. Nine of those were in Pitkin County, the other in Eagle County. In all of the incidents, a bear scratched, bit or struck someone. None of the incidents resulted in human deaths, but several of the victims required medical attention. Five of the bears involved in the incidents were euthanized, the report says.

More liberal hunting regulations — such as raising bear-license quotas — will help deter the number of bear conflicts with humans, the report said. Bad natural-forage years, combined with growing bear and human populations, as well as a lack of compliance with trash laws, make conflicts between bears and humans common, the report said.

“In reality, the conflicts that occur with bears require more than changes in licensing or hunting structures in order to resolve the problems,” said the report, which covers all of Pitkin County, most of Eagle County and portions of Garfield, Gunnison and Grand counties. The report also notes that most human-bear conflicts happen in Aspen, Avon, Eagle, Edwards, Glenwood Springs and Vail.

“In addition to a bear population reduction, a drastic reduction in unsecured trash and other human food sources is also necessary to minimize the incentives for bears to forage in human areas,” the report said.

Stabilizing the population

One of the study’s alternatives suggests keeping the bear population stable.

The study estimates that 1,250 bears live in the area. To maintain that population, the number of bear mortalities should range from 125 to 190 annually, the report said.

Assuming that the three-year average of 40 non-hunting mortalities a year holds up, then another 85 to 155 bears need to be claimed through hunts, the report said.

“License quotas would remain similar to recent years until the population indices suggest that the population is declining,” the study said. “Human-bear conflicts would likely continue to be high in years of natural-food failures (unless communities are successful at securing trash and other human food sources). Livestock conflicts and vehicle collisions with bears would also remain high in food-failure years.”

Since 2000, Colorado bear-hunting season has begun Sept. 2 and run through Sept. 30. In 2008, the state introduced private-land-only seasons in the fall. The state’s big-game structure will remain similar through 2019, with some exceptions concerning rifle and archery seasons. Also starting this year, hunters in the B-11 zone can hold as many as two bear licenses annually.

Decreasing the population

The second alternative aims to decrease the population until human-bear conflicts show a decrease in the three most recent poor natural-food years. In this scenario, 145 to 210 bears would need to be harvested annually through hunts.

“Under this alternative, opportunities to draw a bear license would be abundant and higher than (the other alternative),” the report said. “License quotas would be set to meet hunter demand and could be higher than recent years. Effectively, quotas would be set high enough that any interested hunter could obtain a bear license, unless hunter crowding becomes a problem.”

The report couches the effectiveness of an expanded hunt, however, noting that “unless the availability of trash and other human food sources are substantially reduced and/or the bear population is reduced significantly to a very low density, conflicts in urban areas will likely continue to occur during poor natural-food years.”

“The top management priority … is to reduce conflicts between humans and bears. In addition, the quality of bear hunting experience and the persistence of a sustainable bear population are secondary priorities after human-bear conflict management.”


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