Q&A: Insight on Colorado’s Human-Bear Interactions

The data outlines a major problem and potentially documents only half of what actually takes place. CPW recognizes that among the 5,369 bear reports from April 1-Dec. 31, there are likely an equal number of human-bear interactions that go unreported.
Video: Human-bear interactions across Colorado in 2019

In 2019, Colorado Parks and Wildlife documented 517 reports of bears entering dwellings, 303 vehicle break-ins and 5,369 total bear calls from April 1 through Dec. 31.

Thanks to a modernized tracking system, these numbers provide a tremendous amount of insight on human-bear interactions. It is the agency’s hope that the release of this data serves as a wake-up call to Colorado residents. Concentrated, community-wide efforts must be made to live appropriately with bears in mind. 

While the public and media tend to focus on the number of bears CPW has to put down, that number is only part of the overall story. In 2019, 92 bears were euthanized, or 1.7 percent of the year’s reported bear conflicts. While these numbers vary year over year, this data sheds new light on the overall picture and how simple steps can be made throughout our communities to keep Colorado’s bears wild and alive.

The data outlines a major problem and potentially documents only half of what actually takes place. CPW recognizes that among the 5,369 bear reports from April 1-Dec. 31, there are likely an equal number of human-bear interactions that go unreported.

2019 Bear Report Breakdown
2019 Bear Report Breakdown

Q&A on Human-Bear Interactions

Q: Do the bear conflict numbers from 2019 illustrate a new and growing problem in Colorado, or has this kind of activity been taking place for a number of years?

A: This kind of activity has been an issue for a long time. We are starting to collect better information and will be able to better answer that question in years to come. Our data tracking system from this year is a big improvement from the past, but we don’t have an apples-to-apples comparison from previous years. Is it more people that are interacting with bears that have stayed the same or is it more braver bears interacting with people? We know that there are more people so this question is hard to answer, but hopefully, we’ll be able to answer that in the future. This new tracking system is a great tool for us as wildlife managers.

Q: Are Colorado’s bears getting braver and have they lost their natural fear of humans?

A: Some bears have lost their natural fear of humans. We do not have the data to say whether or not the population as a whole is becoming more habituated to people. We certainly have a lot of conflicts and have people moving into bear habitat. Obviously there are some bears that are very habituated to people.

Q: Have people encroached too far and taken up suitable bear habitat?

A: Certainly there is a lot of stress on wildlife resources due to our expanding human population with new houses popping up in new places. That contributes to the problem. People that are moving into bear country need to have the balance of being tolerant of wildlife, but trying to feed them, befriend them or getting wildlife to behave unnaturally exacerbates the problem. 

Helping people who live in bear habitat to do a good job of co-existing, which sometimes means hazing bears away that may pay you a visit. It is not just about not providing attractants, it can also include doing your part to make sure bears retain their natural fear of humans. If a bear comes into your yard or close to your home, do yourself and the bear a big favor and scare it away. A confident attitude plus loud noises like a firm yell, clapping your hands, banging on pots and pans or blowing an air horn sends most bears running.

Talk to your neighbors too about doing their part to be bear-responsible.

Q: What is Colorado Parks and Wildlife going to do about reducing bear-human interactions in the future?

A: We are trying to enlist communities to help us on this, because it requires a community-wide effort to keep our bears safe and wild. Formally and informally, it is about securing attractants and making sure that people allow bears to stay wild. We have found success in towns and cities where they have been strategic about how they handle their garbage. 

We also want to keep people from intentionally or negligently feeding bears by leaving food out for them. We’ll continue educating people and communities on how food sources and attractants lead to problems and find new tools to reach more people. We’ll continue to do it the old-fashioned way by talking to people face-to-face, doing school programs, site inspections and engaging with the communities on implementing smart ordinances that will work for them to keep human-sourced food away from bears. 

Q: What places in Colorado reported the most human-bear conflicts?

A: The most bear reports in Colorado come out of Area 8, Area 14, Area 2, Area 15 and Area 18, in rank order. See map for reference on how we define our areas. 

Colorado Parks and Wildlife Regions, Areas and Office Locations Map
Colorado Parks and Wildlife Regions, Areas and Office Locations Map

Q: Why did so many bears break into homes and vehicles last year? Is that normal?

A: We see reports like this go up and down based on the local food availability. In years where there are less natural food sources, there seems to be more bears that are bold enough to break into houses and vehicles. 

Generally, a bear that is shy and afraid of people isn’t going to go into a house. That is a really scary place for a bear. It is over the course of several encounters with people and not having negative experiences, becoming habituated, that they get braver. A bear knows that this house if full of food, it can smell it. As it becomes braver, it may take advantage of an open window when nobody is home and get a food reward. Then the bear learns that there are lots of good calories inside of houses and may continue to look at them as food sources. They will wait for night or when nobody is home, but sometimes that will escalate to bears coming in when people are sitting on the couch. It is a progression and that is why we say it is a very preventable conflict by keeping your doors and windows closed. 

That is the most common cause of a bear getting put down in Colorado, a bear breaking into a house and us having to remove it. If people really care about bears, probably the No. 1 thing they can do is keep their ground level doors and windows closed and locked and not teach bears to be so unafraid of people that they are willing to go in a house. 

Q: What can I do to help start the process with my municipality to enact a trash ordinance? Should there be a statewide law on trash ordinances?

A: It is important to have information to start with. Try to work with your local wildlife officer to quantify the problem or get a better handle on what that is. How many bears are in your community, what factor does trash play, are there other attractants that can be playing a role where you live? Take that information, work with your local wildlife officer and then go to your governing body and make the case. You also have to make the case to your neighborhood because they have to support it too. Network and build support on how it can make your community better and keep our bears safe. 

There is no one size fits all solution, so a statewide law would be a challenge. There obviously are communities in Colorado that do not have bear issues. Any law or ordinance should be tailored to your community and what the issues are. The cause should be born locally as opposed to putting out a blanket regulation for the whole state. 

Q: What would you say to people who are afraid to report bear issues to wildlife officials because they think that all you will do is kill the bear?

A: Of the over 5,300 bear reports CPW received in 2019, only 1.7 percent of those resulted in a bear being put down. The vast majority of the time that is not the outcome. Whether you are trying to get a trash ordinance or to get to the root of the problem in your community, having these numbers is really helpful. By reporting your incidences, it will help us better understand our bears and help in our bear management. It also plays a big role in helping us curb small problems from growing into big or dangerous situations.

People are part of the solution, and part of that is changing your own behavior to protect that bear. If people want to talk with CPW about our bear management practices, we are available to do that. We encourage you to get to know your local wildlife officer or visit any of our local area offices. 

Q: When calling to report a bear issue, what kind of information is CPW looking for?

A: We want to know location, date, time of day and generally what the bear looks like because bears do look different from each other. We want to know what the attractant was, so why was the bear in conflict or why did you see the bear. We also want to know if there was any property damage or what the behavior of the bear was, was it doing anything other than just eating. 

Q: How many bears are there in Colorado?

A: Bears have lived in the foothills and forests of Colorado since long before the pioneers arrived. It is estimated that today there are between 17,000-20,000 bears in Colorado. The black bear is the only species of bear in Colorado. They are black in color, but they can also appear blonde, brown and cinnamon.

Q: Instead of killing bears, could CPW move them to a wildlife sanctuary?

A: The law does not allow for us to put wild bears in captivity in Colorado and there is a good reason for that. We want our wildlife to be wild and we want to learn how to co-exist with them. In some circumstances when human safety dictates we are going to have to remove an individual. Putting them in a sanctuary, you might argue, is not what a bear would want either, being put in an enclosure where it can’t be free. It’s a cruddy way for people to avoid feeling bad about their own decisions. How about we don’t make those poor decisions to begin with and then it will be a win-win for our bears. 

There is that, and then there is another thing that this new data is going to be helpful at illustrating. If we say that a lot of our lethal removal of bears comes from ones that break into houses, over 500 break-ins in 2019, some of those instances will be from the same bear but not all. Let’s say a third of that is distinct bears, that’s still 150 bears. Where would we put 150 bears every year? It’s not reasonable.

Video: How to construct a bear unwelcome mat

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Written by Jason Clay. Clay is a public information officer for the Colorado Parks and Wildlife northeast region.

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