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Development is the real bear problem

Column by Hal Walter

Wildlife – September 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

I HAVEN’T SEEN A BEAR THIS SUMMER. This fact may not seem odd to most people, but to me it’s amazing. I spend large amounts of time outdoors on trails and backroads. What’s more, the area I live in is a hotbed of bear activity, and almost everybody I know who lives around here has a bear story this summer.

Of course most of these “Yogi and Boo-Boo” tales pale in light of the bear attacks this summer near Poncha Springs and Walsenburg, and another at a Scout Ranch in New Mexico. Some people seem alarmed by these stories of bears attacking humans. I’m only surprised that it doesn’t happen more often. Considering what some of us have done — and what the rest of us have allowed to be done — to Colorado’s habitat, we all deserve to be eaten by bears.

Do the math. Colorado’s population has grown by more than 1 million people in the past decade without any regard for the needs of our other inhabitants like bears. Colorado’s open space has been developed at a rate of more than 17,000 acres each year for the last half decade. Much of that development occurred largely in the mid-latitude areas, destroying much Ursus Americanus Gambel’s oak habitat. Some estimate that as much as 90 percent of the acorn-producing Gambel’s oak ecotone has been destroyed by our own greed, arrogance, ignorance and a general lack of attention to what really matters.

Meanwhile, the bears aren’t exactly practicing birth control. The Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW) estimates that there are as many as 12,000 black bears in Colorado. Females give birth to two or three cubs each spring. While hunters bag about 800 bears each year and the natural mortality rate keeps many cubs from becoming adults, the rate of population growth of bears could be significant when you consider that many of them live as long as 20 years.

I call myself a subsistence hunter because I hunt only for meat. I have never had any desire to hunt or eat a bear, and I am one of the few hunters who actually voted for Amendment 10 in 1992, which ended spring bear hunts, and banned the use of bait and dogs for hunting bears. I find the notion of baiting bears despicable, not to mention lazy. Many hard-core hunters blame the bear problem on the passage of Amendment 10, which is pure bull. DOW’s statistics show that on average significantly more bears have been annually harvested by hunters since its passage.

Face it, the problem isn’t hunting or the lack of it. The problem isn’t trash, hummingbird feeders, dog food or barbecue grills either.

These are only symptoms. The real problem is development and uncontrolled growth. If you live in bear habitat and don’t move back to town, then you are part of this very real problem. This includes me. The bears were here first. If you choose to live here, then you better get used to the idea that a bear may come inside your home and eat you. If one raids your trash dumpster or eats your dog, then you should consider it a minor inconvenience.

While I have not seen a bear this summer, I am certain that bears have seen me. I see their tracks everywhere I go.

They are up and down my road. They follow and cross the Forest Service roads that I run and bike. Last week I found a set of tracks in my muddy corral, just a few paces from my house.

I have also seen the things bears have done to my trash dumpster, which I jokingly refer to as the “bear feeder” even though I know this term will piss off bear “experts” everywhere. In Colorado it is illegal to feed a bear either knowingly or unknowingly. Yet the rural mountain landscape is dotted with big red bear feeders where human residents deposit their trash.

I was the first person in my neighborhood to have a bear feeder. This is not something that I am proud of, but at the time I ordered my dumpster I had no idea of the influx of new residents in the neighborhood, and that my bear feeder would only be the first of several.

FOR ME IT SEEMED to be a necessary convenience when Custer County’s landfill was moved from just north of Westcliffe to several miles southeast of town, making it a 40-mile-plus round trip from my house to the dump. Suddenly the days of making a run to town for groceries and tossing a couple of bags of trash into the truck were a thing of the past.

At first we shared the dumpster with other neighbors. But sometimes it would be overfull, and we finally decided we needed our own dumpster. As time went by, several other neighbors built houses or moved into the “neighborhood,” a term I use loosely because everyone lives on at least 35 acres in my area, and there are also large expanses of public land as well as a land conservancy. Many of the new residents also ordered up their own dumpsters. Now there are no fewer than seven dumpsters within just a mile’s distance. Depending on the vagaries of rural trash pickup, things can get pretty ripe in the summertime, and the bears can easily make the rounds in an evening, trying the bars and locks on all of these giant lunch boxes.

I try my best to compost my vegetable waste, and feed all meat scraps and bones to my dogs, limiting the trash in my dumpster to mostly non-food items. Even so, enough organic matter ends up in my dumpster to make it of interest to the local bears.

Early this summer I found the corner of the plate-steel lid bent straight up into the air, and actually torn at the resulting crease. I can only assume that this bear must have found a discarded bottle of steroids in someone else’s dumpster. When this bear was unable to get inside my dumpster, it merely ambled over to my nearest neighbors’ dumpster and ransacked it. Recently I have awakened twice to find my dumpster overturned or actually standing on end.

ON A MORE SERIOUS NOTE, earlier this summer a bear attacked and killed a calf on Bar Basin Ranch. Owner Gary Ziegler said that the kill was confirmed by the Division of Wildlife and that he would be reimbursed for the livestock loss. One thing Ziegler found unsettling about losing the calf was that the bear apparently was not interested in beef, and after a couple of bites left the calf largely uneaten.

While black bears are notorious for raiding dumpsters, attacks on livestock and people are relatively rare. According to the Colorado Division of Wildlife you are many times more likely to be killed by a spider, dog, snake, bee or another person than you are by a bear. Still, human-bear interaction has a strong emotional component, probably because most people don’t see their tracks every day, or count on seeing a couple of bears every summer like I do. In fact one summer I saw eight different bears, and three of those happened to be cubs with whom I inadvertently came to be in too-close contact. Not once during any of these instances, or the many others I have had over the years, did I feel threatened by the bear.

In his book Animal-Speak, which I highly recommend for anyone who is interested in the connections between animals and people, author Ted Andrews says that bears are one of the last true symbols of how serious humans are about protecting and preserving the environment. When I think about the bear attacks and even the more subtle interactions of humans and bears where I live, I understand that this is a powerful message for all of us who live here and care about our habitat.

Meanwhile, the bears are restless. They need to eat as much as 20,000 calories a day to get ready for winter. I keep watching when I’m out and about. I scan the hillsides in the morning and evening hoping to see one. I feel certain I will see at least one before summer ends.

Hal Walter writes and raises burros in some of the fine bear habitat of the Wet Mountains.