With the official start of camping season this weekend, people who live, camp and hike in the mountains of Colorado should be particularly aware this year – a drought year – of potential black bear encounters.
Colorado State University wildlife researchers have advice for those enjoying the mountains this year.
"Colorado has an abundant population of black bears, and they can cause a number of conflicts, especially in dry years when their natural foods of berries and acorns are in short supply," said Bill Andelt, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension wildlife specialist. "However, there are steps individuals can take to avoid or minimize interaction with bears."
Campers and hikers should be aware that, because of drought in Colorado, bears are hungrier than usual and searching more widely for food. Campers should carry bear-proof packs and suspend food from the branch of a tree at least 10 feet high and 4 feet from the tree trunk. Campers also should sleep a distance away from where food is cooked and kept. Campsites need to be as clean as possible and garbage kept in bear-proof containers or suspended with the food. Soap and hygiene products should be placed out of reach as well.
Mountain residents also should take precautions. Pet food needs to be kept inside. Garbage cans should be bear proof, emptied often and occasionally cleaned out with a bleach and water solution. Barbeque grills need to be cleaned often and stored in a garage if possible. Hummingbird and other bird feeders should be kept well away from the house and brought inside in the evening.
Bears encounter survival difficulties during drought years and, while some people may think that feeding them will help ensure their existence, the opposite is true.
"It’s the worst thing that people can do and actually will lead more toward the bear’s demise," said Andelt. "The bear will begin to identify their food source as coming from humans. If the bear has more than one human encounter, it will be destroyed."
Property owners who fail to remove trash, food or other bear attractants are subject to a $68 fine under a new Colorado Division of Wildlife regulation that went into effect May 1.
When hiking in the mountains, individuals are encouraged to avoid dawn or dusk because chances of meeting a bear are increased during those times. Always make sure that children hike with an adult, and leave dogs at home if possible.
"Black bears generally avoid human contact, so wearing a bell is suggested when hiking to let the bear know you’re in the area," said Andelt. "The main problem occurs when we get between a sow and her cub. The mother bear can become aggressive."
When encountering a bear, Andelt suggested that people stand still and look as big as possible – if wearing a coat, open it up. If hiking with more than one person, group together. Don’t look directly at the bear and back away slowly. Never run or try to climb a tree, as bears are excellent climbers. If the bear should attack, fight back as vigorously as possible.
"Research indicates that pepper-spray bear repellents are effective for deterring an attack," said Andelt. "Individuals need to make sure they stand upwind from where it’s sprayed because it will have the same effect on them as the bear."
If you have a potentially life-threatening situation with a black bear or if an injury occurs, contact the Colorado Division of Wildlife.
For more information about managing conflicts with bears, visit the Web at www.coopext.colostate.edu/wildlife/bears.html.