Bill would allow for flexible bear hunt

Wildlife advocates say ursines still vulnerable

DENVER – Bears beware – Colorado lawmakers worried about the animals’ growing population are talking about giving wildlife officials more say about when bears can be hunted.

A proposal set for its first hearing today would repeal a 1992 voter-approved initiative that prohibits hunting bears from March 1 to Sept. 1 and give the state Division of Wildlife authority to expand hunting dates.

Voters overwhelmingly approved the initiative amid concern that female bears were being hunted in the spring, when they are taking care of their cubs. The initiative also banned hunting bears with dogs and baiting bears with food to kill them. The bill sponsored by Rep. J. Paul Brown would not eliminate those provisions.

Brown, an Ignacio Republican, said he’s concerned that the animals are becoming less afraid of people.

“If at all possible, I just don’t want to have a tragedy with some little kid getting killed by a bear if there’s a bad bear around,” he said.

But a wildlife-rights group argues the bear population still is vulnerable and its numbers could dwindle fast if more hunting is allowed.

“Sure, if you wipe out the whole population, there’s going to be no conflicts” with people, said Wendy Keefover, director of carnivore protection for WildEarth Guardians.

Brown insists he’s not advocating a spring bear hunt, and it’s unlikely that hunters will be allowed to take the animals during spring. He’s also not offering an opinion as to when more hunting should happen.

“The Division of Wildlife, I think, are the experts, and they’re the ones that need to make those decisions,” he said. “It’s just that right now, as it is in statute, they just don’t have that flexibility.”

Randy Hampton, a DOW spokesman, said the agency is not taking a position on the bill. But he said having additional season-setting flexibility would permit the department to allow bear hunting during the late summer “in areas where bear densities are determined to be too high.

“Just because we are given authority to hunt year-round doesn’t mean the spring hunt would come back. We’re not discussing the spring hunt as an option,” Hampton said.

Hampton said wildlife officials estimated the bear population at close to 8,000 in the early 1990s. Additional research is under way, and wildlife officials “have conservatively estimated the black bear population in Colorado at approximately 12,000 bears,” he said.

Bear encounters with people have increased as more Coloradans move into rugged areas and people explore more of the state’s backcountry, Hampton said. Urban development, persistent droughts and late frosts also have brought bears and humans closer as the animals search for food.

In 2009, wildlife officers and landowners killed 211 bears because of their interaction with people or property, and in 2010, another 219 were killed.

Last week, a man in suburban Colorado Springs told police he had to take refuge on top of his truck after he was chased by a mother bear and her two cubs. Last summer, wildlife agents killed a bear that bit a man in Durango who was sleeping outdoors. The man wasn’t seriously hurt.

Keefover, with WildEarth Guardians, said bear-versus-human conflicts are a matter of people taking personal responsibility and being smart about not attracting bears by leaving food or trash where it’s easily accessible.

She said that despite Brown’s reassurance that a spring bear hunt won’t happen, she’s still worried that bears will be targeted when cubs are most dependent on their mothers.

“The idea that we need to hunt when cubs are vulnerable is just completely unethical and wrong,” she said.