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Bears up and about; researchers to greet them

SHAUN STANLEY/Herald file photo Colorado Parks and Wildlife technician Lyle Willmarth, center and biologist Heather Johnson, left, call out measurements to field technician Tom Day from a female bear trapped last summer in the Perins Peak wildlife area. The agency outfit 25 adult females with satellite collars last year and hopes to do the same number this year in a continuing research project.

By Dale Rodebaugh Herald staff writer

As more black bears emerge from their winter quarters around Durango, Heather Johnson will be ready for them.

“We kick off our second year of work on May 15,” Johnson, a Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologist, said Friday. “I have nine seasonsals (employees) this year.”

Johnson is talking about an agency study to determine bear population, their behavior and their relationship with people.

Greater Durango was selected for the study because it’s prime bear country and a site of many interactions between ursines and humans.

Johnson’s team last year trapped 25 adult females and outfitted them with satellite collars to track their movements. The remainder got an ear tag for identification.

“We got a mix of bears,” Johnson said. “Some use natural habitat, others frequent urban settings.”

Johnson plans to trap and place collars on 25 more adult females this year.

The female bears will be tracked by their GPS collars for five or six years, Johnson said.

Human-bear conflicts are increasing, but biologists don’t know if the reason is a growing bear population or if bear behavior is changing, Johnson said.

The study could shed light on the matter, she said.

Biologists used hair snares to collect 750 samples last year. A strip of burlap soaked in a rotten-fish solution was hung in a tree out of reach of bears.

When bears climbed a tree to reach the anticipated meal, they snagged their fur on a strand of barbed wire.

Thirty-one snares were set, she said. The snares were cleaned once a week. Hair samples are being analyzed for DNA, she said.

During the winter, biologists visited dens to check on mama bears, cubs and yearlings.

Yearlings are cubs from the previous year that return to the den and emerge a second time at 1 year of age.

Biologists also are keeping track of bear deaths and the number of bears getting into trash bins.

Johnson is not sure what food the emerging bears will find. Dry weather could affect the availability of grass and forbs, the early food bears eat.

The weather or an unseasonal frost could affect the acorn and berry crops that provide bear food in the fall.

“A rain could do a lot for forbs and grass,” said Patt Dorsey, area wildlife manager for Parks and Wildlife. “But the worst thing that could happen would be an early frost.”

When natural food is scarce, bears invade urban areas to fill their stomachs. They soon learn that garbage cans are easy pickings and backyard barbecue pits and bird feeders are a source of high-calorie eats.

“Even in a good natural-food year, a bear will get into a garbage can or bird feeder,” Dorsey said.

Johnson said that 52 percent of Durango-area residents have returned a Parks and Wildlife survey mailed in January asking about their experience with bears.

The survey focuses on whether residents have had interactions with bears, precautions they’ve taken to avoid contact and their perception of the agency’s management of bears.


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