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Why did bears stay away from populated areas this year in Southwest Colorado?

Human-bear conflicts had been on the rise, but not in 2020
Bear season was quiet this year, likely because there was plenty of food in the forest.

With all the attention on this year’s highly contentious election and the onslaught of news surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, one issue that usually takes the spotlight in Southwest Colorado went unusually quiet – bear season.

But that’s not just because those national issues took center stage. It appears throughout the region, there just weren’t many human-bear conflicts like there have been during the past few years.

“Overall, it was a good year,” said Adrian Archuleta, Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s acting area wildlife manager in Durango.

For the past few years, human-bear conflicts have been on the rise. Reports would come in on an almost daily basis of bears getting into trash, ripping down bird feeders or breaking into garages.

“We were running ragged on those years,” Archuleta said.

In more unfortunate situations, bears that became habitual offenders, lured by residents not securing food sources, would have to be euthanized on a semi-regular basis.

In 2017, for instance, a year with a bad natural food cycle and significant human-bear conflicts, a total of 36 bears were euthanized. This year, however, only nine bears were killed, and of those, only two or three were put down because of conflicts.

(The other bears were put down for having injuries. It should also be noted landowners killed an additional five bears.)

The consensus among wildlife officials is that a strong natural food crop this year kept bears feasting in forests on foods they’re supposed to be eating. By July, reports of bear conflicts nearly ceased, Archuleta said.

Last year, CPW received around 300 calls to report bears for things like getting into trash or attempting to enter chicken coops. This year, CPW logged just 180 or so calls, a 40% reduction.

“It comes down to natural food availability,” Archuleta said.

Bryan Peterson with Bear Smart Durango said the region, in a prolonged drought, received just enough moisture to kick off a strong acorn crop this year, one of bears’ most important food sources.

“It just shows the power of an acorn crop,” he said. “That was the saving grace.”

Throughout La Plata County, Peterson said Bear Smart received just 150 reports this year for things like bears getting into trash, going after fruit trees or trying to enter chicken coops.

In 2017, one of the busiest years for human-bear conflicts, Bear Smart received more than 420 reports.

The story was much the same in Durango city limits, usually a hotbed of activity for human-bear conflicts.

Steve Barkley, the city’s code enforcement officer, said just 15 bear-related calls came in this year. While the yearly average of calls fluctuates, some years more than 200 calls have been received.

“It was very slow and quiet,” he said.

In city limits, part of that success is attributed to available natural foods, but another factor is the widespread distribution of bear-resistant cans to households over the past few years.

Katie Sickles, Bayfield town manager, said recently distributed cans to its residents are having a similar impact alleviating human-bear conflicts.

“The bear cans worked really well, but part of the issue was, if the customer doesn’t close it all the way, the bear can still get in it,” she said. “But as far as I can tell, customers are learning how to use it.”

For the first time this year, CPW also used a different tactic within Durango city limits that may have helped reduce human-bear conflicts, using an early intervention approach for bears running into trouble.

Rather than waiting to relocate a bear for a second offense, wildlife officials trapped and relocated bears after their first run-in, in an attempt to get the bear out of that situation before it developed a bad habit.

In all of La Plata County, seven bears were relocated, Archuleta said.

“I’m happy to report we didn’t have to put down any of those bears,” he said.

Peterson said it remains important to keep up educational efforts, especially as new residents move into the region. And with the lack of emphasis on securing trash, the nonprofit focused on other important issues, like gleaning fruit trees.

Bear Smart also helped more than 30 people install electric fences, mostly to secure chicken coops.

Archuleta, too, emphasized the region is in a prolonged drought, so while there may not have been a rush of conflicts this year, that doesn’t mean the effort to live responsibly in bear country is over.

“The habitat is not in great condition because of drought conditions,” he said. “That’s something definitely of concern. Hopefully, Mother Nature starts to produce significant moisture.”

But for now, it appears this year’s bear season has ended, quietly. Peterson said the last bear sighting report he received was Dec. 2, and it’s likely the animals have denned and entered their long winter slumber.

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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