Window into the world of bears |

Window into the world of bears

This 3-year-old male fits the profile of a "problem" bear because of his young age and inexperience, according to the Colorado Division of Wildlife. (Courtesy Colorado DOW)

Bears apparently aren’t automatically addicted to human sources of food even if they spend most of their time hanging around places like Aspen, researchers have learned.Six black bears of various ages were captured around Aspen, tranquilized and fitted with collars last summer. Researchers retrieved the collars in the fall and downloaded the data on computers so they could analyze the travel patterns.Some of the preliminary results were unexpected, according to Sharon Baruch-Mordo, a graduate student at Colorado State University. She is leading the experiment in conjunction with the Colorado Division of Wildlife and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.Most of the bears spent a great deal of time wandering outside town limits.”We thought they were going to be more urbanized,” Baruch-Mordo said.A 13-year-old male surprised researchers and wildlife officers the most. The bruin spent most of his time just outside the town limits along Castle Creek. He made occasional forays up Red Mountain. But in a move that perplexed veteran wildlife officer Kevin Wright, the bear high-tailed it for the Crystal River Valley via the flank of Mount Sopris in the fall.”The movement of that bear surprised me,” said Wright, who covers the Aspen district. It’s purely speculation, Wright said, but perhaps the bear found a resilient food stash in the Crystal that survived during years when frost or drought ruined crops. Maybe he returns to that source every year as a learned behavior.

A 13-year-old female’s travel patterns during the summer and fall seemed to indicate the allure of natural food sources. That bear spent a good deal of time rummaging around Aspen until the serviceberry and chokecherry crops ripened in the woods. She then dashed for Smuggler Mountain to tap the natural food sources and stayed up there for 15 to 20 straight days without visiting town.But the preliminary results also supported suspicions that subadult males are usually responsible for nuisance calls, said John Broderick, a terrestrial biologist with the wildlife division. The subadult male bears can be the equivalent of teenage delinquents. One of them stayed almost exclusively within town limits throughout last year’s study.Wright said that doesn’t necessarily mean the bear is invading Dumpsters, barbecues and bird feeders. He may be tapping fruit trees in town.

Broderick cautioned it’s too soon to make any conclusions because the study is in its infancy. The goal is to capture 15 bears in Aspen and Glenwood Springs this summer, and study their travel patterns.The researchers gained a powerful new tool over the winter. New collars will send a GPS reading every 15 minutes. Researchers can watch the travels almost in real time, without waiting until they retrieve the collars after the bears den for the winter.”It’s just short of getting in their minds,” Baruch-Mordo said.The results this summer will not only help identify “bad” bears, but also the humans who support their habits. The near-instantaneous tracking will allow wildlife officers to investigate hot spots that the bears seem to visit night after night.That could lead to enforcement action, like ticketing people who leave garbage unsecured, or changes in management techniques, like taking additional steps to secure food sources, wildlife officers said.Researchers have already captured five bears for this year’s experiments. Four of them are young males.

After studying travel patterns for another year, the researchers and wildlife officers will experiment for two more summers to see if management techniques play a role in reducing conflicts between bears and humans.The wildlife division has focused on educating the public about the potential conflicts with bears in recent years. Aspen, Snowmass Village, Basalt and Pitkin County have bear ordinances that require people to take steps to prevent bears from getting into food. Nevertheless, wildlife officers are frustrated with the ongoing problems.

“The number of conflicts isn’t going down. It’s going up,” Broderick said. He said education might not be working.The wildlife division has a two-strike policy. The first time officers capture a bear after a conflict, they tag it and often relocate it. A second incident requires wildlife officers to kill it.Only three were destroyed in the valley last year. In 2004, when natural crops largely failed, 15 bears were killed intentionally or hit by vehicles.So far, this season looks good for natural food sources like chokecherries, serviceberries and oak brush, Broderick said. Frost is a threat through mid-June; and there’s always a risk of drought.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is

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