Bear Encounters

Article by Hal Walter

Wildlife – October 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

It was by no cosmic coincidence that I went to sleep reading The Grizzly Years by Doug Peacock and awoke to the sound of low growling. It was not a bear.

It was my dog.

He was growling at a bear.

I stumbled down the stairs and to the glass door. Through squinting eyes in the morning’s first light I saw the tail-end of a black bear bounding away into the draw behind my house. I went back to bed, knowing full well the bear would return.

IN OTHER PARTS OF THE COUNTRY people talk about the dog days of summer. Here we have the bear days and nights of summer — and early fall, too.

Actually I was expecting a visit from a bear and that was one of the reasons I had chosen the appropriate bedtime literature. This year Custer County has been abuzz with bear talk. It started in January when a Custer County resident was acquitted in a jury trial for shooting and killing a bear he said was trying to enter his home.

It was no contest really. The local sentiment was that the man shouldn’t have been cited in the first place. Justifiable ursucide: In rural Colorado the so-called “Make My Day Law” applies to wildlife as well as humans. Since the trial, locals joke about the “Three Ss: Shoot, shovel and shut up.” Still many bear encounters are public and the rumors fly. This summer a bear was killed by authorities in Silver Cliff. Another bear — a suspect in the maulings and slayings of some local pigs — was run out of town after attracting a mob in Wetmore.

A Boneyard Park man said a 285-pound boar died of a severe case of lead poisoning after it charged him three times when he went to check on noises in his goat corral one night. The man was not cited. Yet another bear, a youngster, climbed a power pole at a guest ranch and was electrocuted. These are the bear facts. I wonder how many people are shooting, shoveling, and shutting up?

I got a phone call from Al McClelland on the one-year anniversary of his son Colin’s death at the claws and jaws of a black bear on Waugh Mountain, north of Cotopaxi. Al called from Indiana after hearing through the literary spider web that seems to spin out of Central Colorado that I was compiling information about bears.

Al, who was licensed as an outfitter in Colorado for 13 years, makes some brash statements about the way this state manages bears. After his son’s death, McClelland, a longtime environmental activist, filed a tort complaint against the State of Colorado, he says, in the effort to initiate some dialogue on wildlife habitat management.

McClelland, who says he once had a black bear lick insect repellent from his face in Yosemite, claims the 24-year-old Colin had continual bear problems for three years at his camp, which he used as a base for cutting downed lodgepole pines. He says his son complained about the bears to authorities on numerous occasions. Just a year before the fatal attack, a bear broke into his trailer and ate all of Colin’s food.

McClelland charges the Colorado Division of Wildlife doesn’t do the appropriate homework before releasing a bear into a new area. “They’re releasing them without knowing the availability of forage for the bears that already live there,” he says, contending there is no survey count of population per drainage. “How many bears can you invite to dinner in one given area?” ashes McClelland. “How many can you add to the habitat without upsetting the food supply?”

How many bears can you invite to dinner? I know of one — it came back that evening just as I was stating down to a bowl of chicken soup. My dogs — a mighty cocker spaniel and sheepish mutt — were holding the bear at bay just a few feet from my deck. I walked out and greeted the bear. “Hey bear, go on now, you can’t hang around here,” I said firmly. The bear was still assessing the dogs.

“Go on now, bear, get out of here,” I said more loudly, not quite shouting. I’m generally not afraid of black bears, mostly because I once faced off with a big mountain lion and now find these bears less impressive. Still, in the back of mind I know a black bear killed and ate Colin McClelland and I wonder why some are more aggressive than others. I guess some bears, like some people, are just that way.

This bear was not violent but he was obviously not impressed by me either. He turned and walked a short distance from the house. I went in looking for suitable artillery and from my stash of deadly weapons chose a standard Wal-Mart issue Marksman wrist-style slingshot. But I couldn’t find the sack of marbles I usually keep handy.

The bear by now had moseyed about 50 feet from the house and was digging up an ant hill. The problem with hurling rocks with a slingshot is that unless you find smooth, round stones, they tend to plane off in a direction other than where you are aiming. Finally I landed a pebble somewhere in the bear’s zip code and he began to amble away. He rambled to near the top of the rocky knob north of my house and started grazing. I watched with binoculars until it was dark.

WHENEVER I HAVE QUESTIONS about wildlife I call Ron Velarde, area wildlife manager at the Colorado Division of Wildlife Pueblo office. I enjoy talking to Velarde about wildlife issues because he doesn’t speak like a bureaucrat or law enforcement officer, but rather someone who loves wildlife.

Unfortunately for Velarde, he’s saddled with the nearly impossible task of managing bears in an area that encompasses most of the best habitat for these critters in a state that has seen 70,000 new residents move in since Jan. 1.

He says this kind of growth has significantly affected the 7,000 to 10,000 bears living in Colorado. Many of the newcomers bought land after responding to ads that trumpeted the on-site visibility of wildlife — including bears. Ironically, these are the first people that call the Division of Wildlife when one of these big critters turns up sucking on a hummingbird feeder out on the veranda.

Velarde says McClelland has a point in that nobody knows precisely how many bears there are in Colorado, but he says the division is conducting a census count and should have a better idea in coming years about the number of bears and where they live. Also, he says the division is sensitive as to where bears are released and has records for every bear captured and where it was released.

“We wouldn’t release a bear into an area that doesn’t have decent forage,” Velarde says. “We keep track of every bear we move with ear tags and we don’t move bears to places where there is a concentration of people.”

In the Waugh Mountain area, four ear-tagged bears had been released since 1988. Two were taken by hunters, one was killed on the road and the fourth wandered off never to be seen again.

The disappearance of the fourth bear is typical bear behavior. “They can move 50 or 60 miles and that’s no problem to them,” Velarde says. He said the division once trapped a bear and moved it 125 miles only to have the same bear back at the capture site one year later.

Just as I was drifting off to sleep I heard the sound of branches crunching outside. I stood out of bed and peered out of the wide-open window. The August moon was waxing full and the shadows of the ponderosa pines were islands of darkness on the pale landscape. One of these black pockets obscured the bear.

“Whoooooooohhhhh, ” said the bear, like a large human exhaling loudly. The hair on the back of my neck stood at attention. I knew the bear could sense — whether by sight, smell, hearing or just some uncanny force of nature — that I was there in the windows.

This bear was talking to me, and although I don’t speak the language, the topic of Conversation seemed to be territory.

“Whoooooooohhhhh,” it made the noise again. I slid five rounds into the Marlin. Bears were becoming more impressive. I walked down the stairs to see if a grounds-eye view from my office window would reveal the bear. Nope.

I marched back upstairs to the bedroom and as soon as I pressed my nose against the screen I was treated with another “Whoooooooohhhhh.”

I got back in bed and listened to the sounds of the bear for the rest of the hour. Then suddenly I realized the bear was gone.

THE DOW THIS YEAR has a well-defined policy for dealing with so-called problem bears. Residents who call to complain about a bear will be visited by a wildlife officer who will inspect the property for things that attract bears — like garbage, bird feeders, pet food and greasy barbecue grills. If any of these things are evident, the resident will be told to clean it up or expect visits from bears.

However, if the problem is cleaned up and the bear persists in causing trouble, the officer may elect to set a trap. Officially new this year is a two strikes and you’re out policy for problem bears. This means that the first time a bear is captured it is ear-tagged. If a bear is captured a second time, it is executed. Velarde says the hides are sold at public auction, the gall bladders are destroyed to keep them off the black market, and the meat, if the bear was not tranquilized, is donated to the Wayside Mission in Pueblo.

“We really don’t enjoy killing bears,” Velarde says. “We have a job and responsibilities and we will do what we have to do, but we don’t enjoy killing bears.”

When I asked Al McClelland what I should do about my bear, he suggested something most bear experts would argue strictly against: I just go ahead and feed the critter.

“Sure I would feed the bear,” McClelland says. “He’s your bear, he’s on your property…but feed him natural things like grapes. I wouldn’t feed him table scraps.”

McClelland says that his son had been cooking indoors and had taken to sleeping on top of the trailer in order to avoid trouble with bears. Just two nights before his death, some friends loaned Colin a rifle.

McClelland said he has determined from letters that Colin had been battling a case of the flu and may have been drowsy from talking an over-the-counter medication the night the bear broke into the trailer for the last time. “Colin was probably in a real deep sleep…the bear came in, overcame him, and killed him,” McClelland says.

However, at some point, a shot was fired through the trailer door.

The Division of Wildlife set a trap near the trailer and captured, convicted, and killed the first bear that took the bait. McClelland isn’t convinced the right bear was caught. “There was no protein in the [dead] bear’s bloodstream to indicate he had consumed a human,” McClelland says.

Willie Travnicek, the DOW district wildlife manager who caught the bear several days after Colin’s death, says that the stocky 240-pound boar had a gunshot wound to its right side, consistent with the height of the bullet that exited the camper trailer. In addition, the only other bear tracks in the area were made by a smaller sow.

The only thing in the bear’s digestive system was the bait he’d used to catch it, Travnicek says. He said the bear apparently fed upon Colin’s body two or three times over the course of five to seven days.

Contrary to reports that the bear was rather hungry-looking, Travnicek said the bear was in excellent condition. “This bear was in fantastic shape, rolly-polly, chunky…way better than average.”

My friend Gary and I were on mountain bikes bouncing down the South Colony Road below Crestone Peak. The road is extremely rough and our eyes were glued to the ground, looking for the next rock that would send us ass-over-teakettle. For some reason, I looked up and noticed the brownish-black sow running about 20 feet ahead of Gary.

By the time my brain connected with my mouth, Gary looked up and saw the rear end of the beast hang a right into the bus We both came to a stop where the tracks left the road, fishtailing pads trailing in the mud behind the claw marks. That was when the coal-black cub came oat from the other side of the road and crossed just a few feet ahead of us. I looked at Gary and said, with a grin: “This is not a good place to be.”

With all due speed, we pointed the bikes downhill.

IT’S CLEAR WE’RE HAVING more bear-human contact not because the population of bears has grown significantly, but rather because the population of humans has grown more dense in areas where bears live. Still, Velarde tells me more people die of bee stings each year in the United States than from bear attacks. Pennsylvania has just as many black bears as Colorado in a much smaller area with a much higher population density — but bear problems are few in that state.

People living in and moving to this area need to understand that they also are moving into the bear’s food chain — whether it be through garbage, bird feeders, or the exceedingly rare occasion when a predatory black bear decides to eat a human. “A bear is just being a bear and they’re omnivorous — they are going to eat anything,” Velarde says.

Think about it when you pick up the phone and call the Division of Wildlife. If the bear has tags in its ears, are you ready to phone in a death sentence? Velarde says he is finding more and more people hesitating to call when they know about the two-strike deal. “People are becoming more tolerant,” he says.

McClelland also suggests tolerance in dealing with bears. “I can’t get my son back — that’s a done deal,” he says. “But this business of killing bears is not any different than killing Indians and that’s how we won the West…it’s just a continuation of that line of thought.”

If a bear snags a bowl of dog food off my porch every now and then, that’s my problem and I can live with that. If one nails me some day, that’s O.K., too. That’s part of the deal here. “Wilderness,” even if it happens to be a subdivision, is still a place where something can have you for dinner. If you don’t like it that way, you can help the situation by moving back to Los Angeles.

“I don’t believe the answer is killing bears,” McClelland says. “I think the answer is limiting development.” He suggests a moratorium on subdivisions and building permits until an environmental impact statement can determine how these stressors affect wildlife such as bears.

In the meantime, if you’re going to live around here, I suggest you get used to living with bears. As Velarde says: “The bear-human conflict will continue and I don’t know what the solution is.”

Hal Walter shares 35 acres near Westcliffe with one or more bruins.