Sightings dramatically increase as Summit County bears prepare for winter
September 25, 2018
Living among Colorado's diverse and beautiful wildlife is part of what makes the Summit County lifestyle so appealing. Visitors and residents alike are frequently dazzled at spotting the often-elusive black bear while hiking the backcountry, catching a glimpse of the solitary giant through a swath of trees or lazily hanging from the canopy. But as September winds to a close and winter approaches, bear sightings are increasing dramatically, and not necessarily where they should be.
"We've had a lot more bear instances lately," said Tom Davies, district wildlife manager for Summit County West. "There's been a lot of bears around eating people's trash and getting into more urban areas trying to find an easy meal. We haven't had any bad things happen, but they are getting a lot more active in trying to find food."
The timing is no coincidence. According to Davies, black bears go through a period called hyperphagia every year during the fall as part of their hibernation cycle. During hyperphagia, bears are looking to add to their fat reserves before hibernating this winter, eating as many as 20,000 calories a day. While the hyperphagia stage began in August, it's peaking right now.
Davies said bears' hyperphagia diets typically revolve around nuts, berries and scavenging carcasses they find. But, in trying times, trash will do.
"They're looking for any food they can get," said Davies. "Anything they get that's easy and high-calorie is what they're after. They don't want to expend a lot of energy because they want to build up their fat reserves to survive the winter. … Typically it's berries and nuts, but Summit County has a lot of trash bears."
According to Davies, his office receives about 30 to 40 calls in a typical month regarding bears outside of their natural areas or digging through trashcans. But those numbers have risen considerably in recent weeks with two to three calls a day coming in.
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Davies said that part of the issue is people leaving easy targets for bears. He noted that bears are smarter than we give them credit for and can actually remember which days are trash pickup days in different neighborhoods.
"People have a lot of high-calorie, easy meals in their trash," Davies explained. "Stuff we consider waste is really easy food for them. When people leave their trash out, even overnight before trash day, it's very easy for bears to walk down the street, knock a can down and get what it needs. They know which day and which neighborhoods have trash day. And once they're rewarded for their efforts, they will come back."
Further driving bear activity in residential and urban areas is the relative lack of food in their natural habitats, exacerbated by continuous drought conditions across the Western Slope.
"This year is particularly tough because of the conditions," Davies continued. "Dry and hot conditions means there's not a lot of natural food sources for them."
While cleaning up after a hungry bear isn't the way anyone pictures spending their morning, migrating into urban areas can also have devastating effects for the bears. No action is taken when a bear tears into a trashcan, but bears that become a human safety issue — such as those that break into homes — are euthanized by the state.
"If a bear breaks into a house, we don't have any choice but to put the bear down," Davies said. "It's a human and safety issue."
As bears continue to scavenge and feast during the waning weeks of hyperphagia, Davies recommended a number of measures to help protect both people and bears from uncomfortable encounters. Davies said hikers and campers should avoid leaving food out, and if you encounter a bear on the trails, keep a safe distance and stay aware of their location. For homeowners, he recommended removing attractants like bird feeders and pet food from outside your home, and said not to take your trash out until the morning of pickup. Davies also advised cleaning outside grills to try to remove appealing smells, as well as keeping windows and doors on lower levels closed and locked.
For more information regarding bear safety, and how to keep bears away from your home, visit the Colorado Parks and Wildlife website.
Bears are expected to begin exiting the hyperphagia stage and starting their fall transition to hibernation in mid-October, starting with females and their cubs. Male bears will wait for heavy snow before settling into their dens.
"We're getting close to the end of hyperphagia for most bears," Davies said. "But if you do see a bear, you just need to be aware of them and make sure you're keeping a good, safe distance."