Wildlife officials: Don’t blame bear problems on lack of hunt | AspenTimes.com

Wildlife officials: Don’t blame bear problems on lack of hunt

A bear cub peeks through the trees before raiding a table at Main Street Bakery last summer. (Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times)

An increase in the number of encounters between black bears and humans in recent years in places like Aspen has got some observers contending the problem exists because a spring hunt was eliminated.State wildlife officers claim that is nonsense. They say hunters are killing more bears now, when hunting is limited to fall, than they ever killed when hunting was allowed in both spring and fall.Colorado voters eliminated the spring hunt in a 1992 election. The ballot issue championed by animal rights’ advocates also banned the use of bait and dogs to hunt bears.Bear problems have skyrocketed in some parts of the state in the last decade, particularly in years when bears’ natural food supplies were wiped out by late frost or drought. Aspen is one of the state’s hot spots, according to the Colorado Division of Wildlife.Kevin Wright, wildlife officer for the Aspen area, has responded to numerous calls of bears breaking into homes and property in recent years. But he strongly dismissed any connection between bear problems and elimination of the spring hunt.

“In my mind, I don’t buy off on that,” Wright said. “We are harvesting about twice as many bears now as we did with the spring bear hunt.”In 1992, hunters across Colorado killed 479 black bears during the spring and fall hunting seasons. In 1993, the first year the spring hunt was eliminated, only 278 bears were killed.But hunters adapted to the limited hunting season for bears. From 1995 through 2004, the number of bears killed in the fall hunt was higher than it was in the years prior to the elimination of the spring hunt, according to wildlife division statistics.The “harvest” over the last 15 years peaked at 857 bears in 2002. Last year, 506 bears bit the bullet.John Broderich, a terrestrial biologist for the wildlife division, said the number of black bears has increased steadily since the 1970s. Before then, bears were routinely hunted without rules. Seasons were eventually established but bears could be baited, even though other big game couldn’t.Animal rights advocates collected enough signatures to place a question on the statewide ballot in 1992 to change some of the hunting rules for bears. The Division of Wildlife was officially neutral on the question.

Bear populations in Colorado are definitely on the rise, but the bear kills during the fall hunt, which starts in September this year, have kept pace, Broderich said.”Those bears are dying in record numbers since the spring season was closed,” he said.Some proponents of a spring hunt contend the number of bears killed isn’t as important as the timing of when they are killed.Sub-adult males are often the bears killed in hunts. Once their mothers stop caring for them it takes time for them to learn to care for themselves and establish their territory.Those young males are also believed to be the bears most often involved with conflicts with humans. They are desperate for food, so they seek the easiest source possible. That’s often in the house of a person who left windows open or a door unlocked.

Critics of current rules claim that if the spring hunt was in place, it would eliminate some of those sub-adult males that tend to have conflicts with humans later in the summer.Wright said he consistently hears that argument. He countered that the fall hunt also tends to eliminate the sub-adult males, so they aren’t around to get in trouble the following summer. A dead bear is a dead bear, he said.Wright contended that the reason for increased conflicts is increased development of prime bear habitat. As the valley grows, much of the development occurs in areas where bears reaped natural foods like acorns and service berries.With fewer food sources, bears go for easy pickings in town and around homes in rural areas, particularly in years when natural factors like a late frost or drought affect acorns and berries.”We’ve placed ourselves in direct conflict,” Wright said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com