Researchers study habits of urban bears |

Researchers study habits of urban bears

A young male black bear examines a bird feeder in the backyard of a house in southwest Loveland as it looks for food Saturday. Colorado Division of Wildlife district wildlife manager Rick Spowart shot the bear with a tranquilizer gun and loaded it into a trailer to release it back into the wild. (Steve Stoner/Loveland Reporter-Herald)

EAGLE – Bears live in human areas, humans live in bear areas. Whichever way one looks at it, bears and humans often don’t get along in urban areas.In past weeks, West Vail residents have been besieged by regular visits from a mother bear that likes to enter homes while people sit down to eat dinner.To better understand why bears behave the way they do in urban areas, wildlife experts are performing a three-year study of several bears in Aspen and Glenwood Springs. Researchers plan to determine if their findings warrant new tactics to keep bears from seeking human food in urban areas, which can mean physical danger to people.”The goal is to reduce the amount of conflict with bears we have as humans,” said Ken Wilson, a professor of wildlife biology at Colorado State University.In general, conflicts with humans are rising as fewer bears are hunted and urban areas grow, said Stewart Breck, biologist with the National Wildlife Research Center.”Once they figure out these places have that kind of food … it really doesn’t take them long to start utilizing those environments,” Breck said. “These urban environments create a very good eating environment for bears.

“They’re probably wary of coming into town, but as they get more used to it they become more comfortable,” Breck said. “They’re trying to figure out a strategy that minimizes energy expenditure and maximizes gain.”The study is a multi-agency project performed by Colorado State University, the Colorado Division of Wildlife and National Wildlife Research Center.Colorado State graduate student Sharon Baruch-Mordo has trapped 11 bears and attached GPS collars to them. The collars record the bears’ whereabouts every 15 minutes. Each location is plotted on a map. Researchers plan to backtrack the bears’ movements to find where and what they’re eating.”It tells us a lot about its food habits,” Breck said. “If it’s getting into trash cans, we’ll know that. If it’s foraging on berries or acorns then we’ll have that information.”Once researchers understand the bears’ eating habits, biologists and wildlife managers might glean some answers on how to curb human and bear conflicts.Results at this point are preliminary, and the researchers involved are hesitant to make any guesses what the information they’ve collected means. Still, they’re learning interesting tidbits of bear behavior.

They found collared bears roamed all over Aspen late last summer during a pilot study, but they didn’t bother humans because berries and acorns were plentiful, Wilson said.Researchers suspect the abundance of berries and acorns, or lack thereof, might influence whether bears come into town to search for food. “If we can better predict how good or poor the natural crop, how good an indicator is that for conflicts?” Breck said.This year, male and female bears traveled farther from Aspen than researchers originally thought. One particular male bear hiked 60 miles from Aspen, maybe chasing a mate, Baruch-Mordo said.”The thought usually was an urban bear was sticking around and getting into garbage,” she said. “The urban bear that would hang around and be a nuisance, we’re not seeing that.”The caveat is the low number of bears being studied and lack of long-term data at this point means the bears over time might change their habits, Baruch-Mordo said.Researchers might find whether people obey trash laws or if asking people to store trash, bird feeders and other sources of human food works.

“There’s a lot of questions whether that sort of thing is worth while,” Breck said.The GPS collars can pinpoint the location of a bear to a garbage can outside someone’s home. If a bear hits the town on garbage day or feeds out of a trash can at a specific home, researchers will be able to show people their trash is drawing bears.”Is it better to educate the bear or people?” said Randy Hampton, spokesman for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. “Who learns faster, bears or humans?”Researchers hope the collars show them whether relocating or scaring a bear out of town with rubber buckshot, pepper spray or noise makers is feasible. The question is do these tactics keep bears away for a day, week, month – or do they stay?”If [the wildlife division] is going to try a specific technique [such as pepper spray] and we can put a collar on that bear then we can get data on that bear,” Wilson said.Field research is scheduled to wrap up in 2008, at which point researchers will analyze collected data and make their conclusions, which should take about a year.

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