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Kids easier to train when it comes to bears

Bears pay price of human carelessness

When people are careless with garbage, grills and bird feeders, the bears who are attracted pay the price. After years of trying to train adults to change their behavior,

“It’s huge that we start with kids,” said Barb Wynn, a seventh-grade science teacher at Miller Middle School. “This fits really well with the life sciences and ecosystems we study in seventh grade. They need to understand the world around them.”

And the human world is dangerous for bears. In 2015, in a 10-mile radius of Durango, five bears were euthanized after they were considered a danger because they were too habituated to people and people food, said Joe Lewandowski, spokesman for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Another 13 bears were struck and killed by vehicles.

Karen Hickerson is Bear Smart’s new education director, and one of the first things she noticed in Wynn’s class was that everyone had a bear experience to share. There were so many that she asked students to hold comments and only ask questions or she wouldn’t make it through her presentation.

“People would say that’s because there’s more bears,” she told the class, making a point about how La Plata County’s population has doubled in almost 50 years. “But here’s a map of the subdivisions around Durango in 1970, and here’s a map of the subdivisions today. So is it more bears or more people?”

Understanding what to do when encountering a bear is one of Hickerson’s key lessons.

“Sometimes, bears will bluff charge, and people will say, ‘Oh, he tried to attack us,’” she said. “Our first instinct is to run, and their first instinct is to chase us. So get big, talk quietly, and make sure the bear has a way out.”

Hickerson has spoken to school groups ranging in age from preschoolers to seventh grade, like Wynn’s class. She has age-appropriate programs – the one for preschoolers and early grades isn’t as scary and is more simple, she said.

“The best comment I got was when I asked students to come up with one word to describe bears,” Hickerson said. “They came up with words like scary, aggressive and cuddly, then one kid said, ‘Pans. That’s what my mom bangs together when they come in the yard.’”

Kid-style

Hickerson, who has worked as a naturalist, facilitator and volunteer with Durango Nature Studies, Colorado Parks and Wildlife Museum and the San Juan Mountains Association, puts scientific facts about bears into terms kids can understand:

In the fall before they hibernate, bears eat 20 hours a day to garner 20,000 calories during a phase called hyperphagia. That’s the equivalent of eating every sandwich on McDonald’s menu.When people leave garbage out, feed pets outside or hang bird feeders, for bears it’s like going to the friend’s house whose mom buys all the “good stuff” for snacks.Bird feeders are like gateway drugs for bears because they’re “sweet calories.” Seven pounds of bird seed has 12,000 calories, which is “a good day’s food.”Bears’ sense of smell is 100 times greater than humans’. “They’re willing to work hard to get into smelly food. They can smell you grilling from two miles away.”Clean out the car. Minivans are the No. 1 most broken-into vehicle in Yellowstone National Park. “Why? Because people with minivans have kids who have spilled food in the backseat.”Some people say allowing bears to be hunted would solve the problem. “That tends to leave a lot of cubs without their mamas.”

The takeaway

In the fall before they hibernate, bears eat 20 hours a day to garner 20,000 calories during a phase called hyperphagia. That’s the equivalent of eating every sandwich on McDonald’s menu.When people leave garbage out, feed pets outside or hang bird feeders, for bears it’s like going to the friend’s house whose mom buys all the “good stuff” for snacks.Bird feeders are like gateway drugs for bears because they’re “sweet calories.” Seven pounds of bird seed has 12,000 calories, which is “a good day’s food.”Bears’ sense of smell is 100 times greater than humans’. “They’re willing to work hard to get into smelly food. They can smell you grilling from two miles away.”Clean out the car. Minivans are the No. 1 most broken-into vehicle in Yellowstone National Park. “Why? Because people with minivans have kids who have spilled food in the backseat.”Some people say allowing bears to be hunted would solve the problem. “That tends to leave a lot of cubs without their mamas.”While Hickerson’s main goal is for students to understand more about bears, she has an action goal in mind, too.

“The hope is they’ll go home and say, ‘Mom and Dad, let’s not feed the birds,’” she said.

And if parents are looking for the ideal neighborhood example to follow, Hickerson recommends the Falls Creek subdivision north of Turtle Lake.

“They live in prime habitat for bears, with water and food, and they have horses and everything,” she said. “But they use one big, locked community dumpster, don’t allow bird feeders and keep all food attractants locked up. And while they see bears, they don’t have problems with them.”

In the end, Hickerson hopes students will remember one key thing.

“The bottom line,” Hickerson said, “is that we don’t want bears to hurt us, and we don’t want to hurt them.”

abutler@durangoherald.com

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