Department

Bear Essentials

Colorado researchers are debunking the conventional wisdom on the relationship between Ursus americanus and human beings.
April 2011

Bear dens smell good. I know that because I’ve just been in one, face up against a bear—headfirst, flat on my stomach—on a narrow, rocky outcropping. I was drenched in sweat, huffing, and thinking, Isn’t it supposed to stink in here? and I’ve never been happier.

But my happiness was irrelevant. It was the bears’ well-being that was germane, which is why 11 of us snowshoed up 1,200 feet on a mountainside near Aspen—a trip that involved several hours of grunting, whispering, cussing the undergrowth, and, in my case, taking off my snowshoes and promptly sinking to my waist, only to crawl out and sink again. On this trip were several researchers from Colorado State University, two veterinarians, and a couple of Colorado Department of Wildlife folks, all of whom were carrying backpacks laden with heavy gear: tranquilizer guns, medical equipment, avalanche shovels. There were also a couple of onlookers, including me, carrying snacks and water and the burden of naivety and buoyant respect that accompanies traveling with people who know their stuff.

The experts among us had located this den with two hibernating bears (a sow and her yearling), dug out the den, and tranquilized the two bears (with the utmost care, grace, and gentleness). They had covered the sow’s face with a soft hat, to protect her, and pulled her to the rocky outcropping. Because there wasn’t room for both bears on the ledge, the yearling was left inside the den. And that’s how I found myself sandwiched between a mama bear and her child—a position that, had these animals not been tranquilized, no one in their right mind would want to be in.

There’s an old cliché: Let sleeping dogs lie. It wouldn’t take too much for a rational person to extend that sentiment to bears. So the question, then, is: Why were we doing this—snowshoeing up a steep, remote slope and bothering a hibernating bear? The answer: to help the bear. Or, to be more specific, to help humans know how to live with bears, which ultimately helps us both.

After I’d been pulled backward out of the den by my feet (by scientists and graduate students, in what was a somewhat embarrassing maneuver for me), I stood with Colorado Department of Wildlife district wildlife manager Kevin Wright, who stomped his feet, pulled on his gloves, and taught me a little bit about bears. Black bears (Ursus americanus) are native to Colorado, and they’ve lost much of their habitat as the human population has increased. Today, bear-human conflicts are sharply on the rise, and they account for about one-third of all bear deaths in the state. Wright told me that in 2009, the Department of Wildlife handled more than 900 bear-related calls, and he relocated more than 30 bears in the Aspen area and euthanized 21 as a result of those calls. “Man, I hate putting down bears,” he said, as we stood gazing at the scientists working over the bear. “I hate it.” And while it’s possible that the ice balls hanging from his beard and clothes caused his eyes to water, it’s also possible that what I saw was a sudden flush of tears.

I jogged in place and swung my arms around, nearly crying myself from the cold. “What would help?”

Three basic things, he said, would solve about 95 percent of bear-human conflicts: bear-proofing garbage, locking doors at night, and closing accessible windows. “People need to take responsibility for where they choose to live.”

“It seems like common sense,” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “It’s not rocket science.”

But the science of what to do with “nuisance bears” was exactly why we’d all trekked up here in the first place. These researchers, in fact, have been able to partially dispel the popular notion that “a fed bear is a dead bear.” Most bears in and around Aspen do not become habituated to human food sources as much as conventional wisdom would have us believe; they will go back to natural food as soon as those food sources are available. Bears are opportunists, yes, but take away the “opportunity” part and they won’t be “-ists.”

This is hugely important because it calls into question the idea of bears becoming “ruined,” and it may put the responsibility for keeping bears in their natural habitat squarely on the shoulders of humans. Don’t feed the bears, and they’ll stay away. Indeed, this new finding has fairly large implications for towns like Aspen, where clusters of conflict cause major economic losses, wildlife population declines, and flat-out trouble. The study, which is being conducted by CSU, is tracking 64 black bears to find out why they go into urban areas. The study will also help the researchers determine if related bears cause trouble—whether sows teach their cubs bad behavior, for example. Based on the GPS collar information, this mama bear, also known as Number 144, did not roam into any urban areas last year. And that was very good news.

Speed and grace. That could apply to these two bears, but since they were knocked out, I was marveling at the research team’s quick and sure work with the animals. The mama bear was covered with a space blanket, vials of blood were drawn, and measurements were taken. The information from all this is used to quantify the bear’s health and gives the researchers a unique genetic signature for each bear, which can be used for population estimates. Researchers use a “hair snare”—barbwire laced with bear-attracting scent—to capture animal fur, which contains DNA. The scientists can use that DNA to determine which—and how many—bears are in a specific area.

I watched one of the vets squat over the bear, holding unused blood vials in her mouth, her eyes closed in concentration as she felt for a vein. I listened to the scientists mutter things like “considering the girth, I’m guessing 177 pounds,” and “seven years old,” and “three cubs last year,” and “dart in at 1:15.” I watched the young CSU grad student deftly handle the bear, as if he’d been doing it all his life. But mostly, as I huddled against a rock outcropping, I studied the bear—her feet pads (so soft) and teeth (so yellow) and fur (so surprisingly thick). I also watched as her radio collar was removed; because the study in this part of the state was now done, the collar was no longer needed.

The tranquilizer that had been used to sedate the bears wouldn’t last forever, and as the researchers hurried to finish up, the bears were given eye ointment and a shot of antibiotics. (“Hey, give that shot in a few places, it will sting her less,” Wright instructed, which prompted a woman to lean over and whisper to me, “That guy loves bears,” and another to murmur, “Yeah, he’s such a softie.”) With much care, the bear was put back into her den, next to her yearling; the opening was covered; and the bears were left in solitude once again.

As we quietly picked up our gear and prepared to leave, I regarded the bear scars on the aspen trees. I’ve seen them before, arcs of five claw marks in beautiful patterns, healed over by the trees. But these trees were tremendous, scarred from top to bottom, as if the whole trunk was the bear’s canvas. These aspens will be among the first things the bears feed on when they instinctually awake from hibernation.

To get back down the mountain, some of the team telemarked, and others slid on their avalanche shovels. I half-snowshoed, half-slid down the steep mountainside in a reckless, uncoordinated way, past the aspen and pine trees. At the bottom, I straightened up, caught my breath, brushed off the snow frozen to my clothes, and looked back toward the den.

There are a lot of bear myths out there, and this trip dispelled many for me. I learned many things: Bears do not hibernate in big roomy caves, but rather under fallen trees or in rocky outcroppings. Bears do not defecate or urinate while hibernating (hence the good smell). Bears do not always hibernate deeply, can be awakened fairly easily, and have the ability to rush you at a speed of 35 miles per hour (humans would atrophy after being sedentary for so long), hence the tranquilizers. Bears make great huffing noises when they are uncomfortable or disturbed. And it is better to tranquilize a bear in the shoulder than in the butt. Most importantly, though, I was reminded that bears don’t want to have much to do with humans, and with a little work on our part, we can keep these majestic creatures wild.

Laura Pritchett is a 5280 contributing editor and writes the Notes from the Front Range column. E-mail her at [email protected].