“Have you seen this video yet? Be careful out there when you go hiking!” Messages like this filled my various inboxes for a solid week.
No doubt we’ve all seen the video of Todd Orr of Bozeman, Montana after he survived two gruesome attacks from the same Grizzly Bear. It’s the most viral bear attack survival video we have probably ever seen. The dude is a serious bad ass hiking 3 miles out after getting shredded like that, and one lucky mountain man to have made it out alive.
Being bear aware was always at the forefront of my mind while on my four National Parks backpacking trip this past July. You can’t help but be obsessive about your safety in Grizzly Country when you’re solo. Strangely enough, I didn’t see a single bear with the exception of the flash of a grizzly bear’s rump running into the forest while driving from Grand Teton and into Yellowstone. However, the Montana locals were sure to tell me about every bear attack story they had, including showing me gory photos of their friends recovering in hospitals from attacks during elk hunting trips, with tips to shove my arm down a grizzly’s throat if I get attacked because they have a sensitive gag reflex (I’m not kidding). Montanans are very vocal about the growing grizzly population and the need for better management, and they don’t hesitate showing you the reality of living in Grizzly Country, either.
It was intense balancing a healthy fear and a bit of a challenge for me to make sure it didn’t grow into panic. It’s incredibly easy to let fear take over and ruin a mountain experience. There were many times I was on a trail by myself coming around a deeply wooded blind corner. Yelling, “HEY BEAR!” and clapping your hands loudly doesn’t exactly make you feel more comfortable, even though this is the best thing you can do on the trail. Bear bells have been proven to be ineffective as the bears don’t hear the pitch until you’re right up on them causing a startle. Thus, park rangers in Glacier tell you not to waste your money and encourage you to enjoy a hike free of annoying bell-ringing. You need bear spray much more than bear bells. So, each blind corner on the trail or rustle in the forest caused me heightened anxiety as I tried my best to be safe in bear country alone.
It got to be mentally exhausting near the end of the trip being so bear aware and survival-focused. It completely changed my perspective on bearanoia here in Colorado. It’s not necessary to be on that high level of awareness. But, the trick is balance. On the other side of the coin I’ve heard comments from a significant number of people that they won’t go hiking, camping, or backpacking alone because of their fear of bears in places close to home, like Poudre Canyon. Letting fear hold you back from awesome adventures is a sad way to limit yourself because you miss out on SO MUCH. All we need to do is level up our knowledge and bear awareness so that people and wildlife can safely share our Colorado forests together.
Many outdoorsy people in the area joke that our black bears are essentially giant racoons that you can scare away. While they don’t compare in aggressiveness and size to grizzlies, it’s a tad misleading to not have a healthy dose of respect and fear for black bears too. While we’ve only had three fatal bear attacks in Colorado since reporting started in 1960 (1971, 1993, and 2009), we do have a number of survivable black bear attacks here in Colorado every year. In 2011 there were a reported 8 attacks. Many of them could have been prevented with proper bear awareness in rural homes and at campsites. In 2015 (most recent reports provided by CPW), there were three reported attacks. This number may rise as more people move to Colorado, many of them clueless to Rocky Mountain living culture, and as we encroach upon bear habitat with continued land development. That is, unless the public gets it together and becomes dedicated to being bear aware. Our education on how to live with bears is the best thing that protects both Coloradans and bears.
Colorado has a conservatively estimated population of 17,000-20,000 black bears. This is a tricky number to nail down since they are a solitary and elusive species. Wildlife biologists have been using hair snag samples over the last decade to do DNA analysis which gives us this estimation. While not perfect, it’s a certainly improved technique since relying on satellite images that initially estimated the population to be at least 12,000 bears.
The bear population has been declining since 2011, which is consistent with CPW’s management goals. While there isn’t a correlation to bear abundance and conflicts, it’s no shock that we could expect be seeing more with our population boom of new Colorado residents, even with stable or decreasing bear populations. Hunters play an important role in helping with management goals as it’s the only management variable that CPW can control. In 2015, we had over 17,000 bear hunters (in all manners of take) with a 6% success rate. The number of bear hunting licenses issues are conservative, but the more human-bear conflicts we have, the more Colorado Parks and Wildlife relies on hunters to help control populations. However, research has shown that hunters aren’t the ones to rely on most to decrease the number of human-bear conflicts. It’s the people camping, hiking, and living in the mountains with livestock.
The problem mostly comes with our residential expansion into rural communities encroaching on bear habitat. Colorado Parks and Wildlife spends a significant amount of their yearly budget on repayment for agricultural loss due to bears – mostly sheep becoming bear meals. The more liability claims they pay out, the more they rely on hunters and anglers to increase their funds since CPW isn’t funded by taxes. It becomes a crazy cycle (and I’m saying this as an avid hunter).
People have a bad habit of leaving bear attractants out – food in coolers, garbage, food in tents, etc. This is a huge problem in popular campgrounds like Dowdy in Red Feather Lakes and Jacks Gulch in Pingree. I’ve had a number of friends tell me about bears coming through camp at Dowdy, and surrounding campers who food left on picnic tables at night. Colorado Parks and Wildlife has been initiating educational programs by creating Bear Aware Teams and posting print materials to help inform the public on the best practices to keep bears at bay.
Not shocking, the public really doesn’t care until they’re in the middle of a bear conflict. Of the eight bear attacks in 2011, five of them were due to people leaving food and garbage out in their campsites and rural homes. Two of those attacks were from the same habituated bear in Pitkin County who had figured out that campers means food, even though one of the camps attacked had their food 75 feet away and hung in a tree (the other two of the eight attacks were from dog walkers and bikers startling sows with cubs).
The ignorance of bear awareness from others puts all of us in more danger of an attack, no matter if we’re being bear aware ourselves, and then increases the likelihood of bears being euthanized for being habituated.
It’s nearly impossible to tell how many bears are in a specific area, although the rangers in Rocky Mountain National Park state they have 24 black bears within the park. They are exceptionally protective of them (and rightfully so), providing bear awareness educational opportunities at visitors centers, being stringent on bear-safe waste management, also demanding backpackers use approved bear canisters and create the “bearmuda triangle” backcountry campsite triangle system. That system is setting up with 70 adult steps between each point: tents, food storage, and cooking/cleaning, designed to give plenty of space between your tent and bear attractants.
A few years ago my kids and I were lucky enough to see a sow and two cubs in RMNP from the safety of our car, watching as they turned over rocks and ate the insects discovered underneath. Traffic came to a halt, people yanked their steering wheels to pull to the side of the road, with many getting out and approaching the bears for photo opportunities.
“THAT IS THE DUMBEST THING THEY COULD DO!” my kids gasped from the backseat. Much like the mama bear teaching her cubs to roll rocks and eat bugs, I felt like I had done a pretty good job of teaching my kids some bear awareness. At least they listen to me sometimes.
More recently in October of this year there was a bear foraging on the side of highway 14 near the narrows in Poudre Canyon. It is certainly exciting to see a wild bear up close and personal, but I found it funny how so many of us are terrified of a bear encounter in camp or on the trail, yet we’ll approach a road bear without hesitation for photos.
But, what my kids’ gasped is true – one of the dumbest things people can do is approach bears for photos. It was unnerving how close people got in both bear sighting situations. More often than not, people in Colorado aren’t going to see bears on the trail, but in campsites and on the side of the road (rural living is a whole other story).
Road bears are in particularly greater danger of getting hit by cars and becoming habituated by people from their photo moments. A habituated bear becomes more comfortable around people, more comfortable rummaging through campsites, more difficult to scare away, and thus can become a nuisance bear increasing their risk of euthanasia. If you see a bear, you need to scare it away. And that’s not just for your safety. It’s for the longevity of the bear’s life.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife relocates an estimated average of 100 bears a year. These bears have learned that human food and garbage is nutritious, delicious, and easier to get than their natural foraging options. Complicating things, it’s been discovered that human food doesn’t replace their natural diets, it’s just they become fat on these second breakfasts, snacks, and garbage buffets which in turn increases the number of cubs that are born, who then also learn where to get food from lazy campers in dirty campsites.
It becomes a vicious cycle. Bears get a two-strikes relocation rule. After they’ve been relocated, they’re tagged. If they come back and show that they’re becoming a nuisance, they are euthanized. Colorado Parks and Wildlife euthanizes an average of 100 bears a year. This is one of the most difficult parts of their job, because they’re killing bears for just doing what bears naturally do. Bears can’t really be trained, but people can. It’s not hunters out there slaughtering bears, like some anti-hunters seem to believe, it’s irresponsible people who are inadvertently creating a death sentence for these animals.
Our Colorado Black Bears are an amazing animal to witness in the wilderness. They aren’t like giant raccoons, even though they are more apt to run away than attack. Be sure to practice your bear awareness to ensure your safety at camp, and help protect the lives of our black bears.
- Make enough noise on the trail so you don’t startle a bear. Bear bells aren’t enough. Clap and yell before you hike or bike a blind corner if you’re alone and see evidence of bears in the area (tracks, scat, claw marks on trees, hair)
- Bear spray is more effective than packing heat. The fatal bear attack that happened in 1993 was due to a camper who shot a bear breaking in his trailer, only grazing it in the ribs. An injured bear is a more aggressive and vicious bear
- KEEP YOUR CAMPSITE CLEAN!!! Keep all trash double-bagged and inside your car. Keep coolers with food locked in your car too
- Don’t store food in your tent – AT ALL
- Get a bear canister, even if you don’t think you need one. Hanging your food isn’t as effective of a deterrent and a canister. The Ursack is NOT an approved bear-safe canister for backpacking in RMNP, as rangers have said bears have figured out how to get through the knots people inefficiently tie. So if it doesn’t work in the National Park, it won’t work in the National Forests, either
- Utilize the Bearmuda Triangle Camp Set Up
While Ranch and Mountain Living:
- Don’t make it easy for bears to get to bird feeders and pet food
- DON’T FEED THE BEARS. The 2009 fatal attack was due to a an elderly woman feeding bears through her porch fence she created. She also ignored requests from rangers to stop. It was a really bad situation she created and ultimately died from
- Use bear-proofed garbage containers
- Clean up fruit trees and secure gardens
- Secure livestock with fencing and/or guard dogs
While at Home:
- Learn about Living with Bears from Colorado Parks and Wildlife
- Get your extensive knowledge on by reading the Human-Bears Conflict Report by CPW