Colorado State University Researchers Study Black Bear Ecology in Urban Environments

As the hibernation season quickly approaches, researchers at Colorado State University are studying the relationship between black bears and humans by better understanding black bear ecology in urban environments.

Since the 1970s, Colorado’s human population has nearly doubled with corresponding increases in urban growth. Urban growth is now expanding into black bear habitat, and as a result, there has been a corresponding increase in bear-human conflict and a shift in agency resources to manage these conflicts.

Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology Professor Ken Wilson and graduate student Sharon Baruch-Mordo are in the middle of a three-year, multi-agency project including Colorado State University, Colorado Division of Wildlife and the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Wildlife Research Center to better understand urban bear ecology and how bear behavior is altered by conflict management.

"This is one of the first projects, to the best of our knowledge, to study such detailed bear movements in an attempt to understand urban black bear behavior and ecology," Baruch-Mordo said.

The study is focused in Aspen and Glenwood Springs, Colo., both of which are considered prime bear habitat. Researchers are examining the conflicts between bears and humans, which are on the rise in mountain communities. Once researchers have a good understanding of bears’ eating habits, biologists and wildlife managers will work to come up with solutions on how to limit human-bear conflicts.

The research has involved placement of downloadable GPS collars on bears. These particular collars allow for real-time collection of movement data. The collars are programmed to record bear whereabouts every 15 minutes beginning in spring until hibernation in late fall. Researchers have been examining GPS data over 24 hour periods by backtracking to locations to study bear behaviors in urban and natural environments. Locations are plotted on a map, and researchers visit those locations to determine where bears went and what they ate.

From May-June 2006, researchers captured 10 bears in Aspen (two were recaptures from 2005) and five in Glenwood Springs. By the end of August, the team backtracked to more than 300 black bear locations. Most backtracked locations revealed evidence of bears feeding on natural food sources and traveling to bedding sites, but preliminary analyses suggest that bears spend, on average, about 18 percent to 24 percent of their time within 100 meters of human structures in Aspen and Glenwood. The data also confirm evidence of bears feeding on human food sources. Of the confirmed human food sources, the majority was related to trash, followed by bird feeders. The majority of trash-related incidents was linked to construction site dumpsters.

Researchers continue to gather and analyze data, and once the study is completed in 2008, final results will be used to provide insights into how people and their actions can affect bear behavior. Results also will help educate people about steps that can be taken to reduce human-bear conflicts.