Frequent but rarely fatal: New state report shows bear problems persist but with few euthanizations
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A new report published this week shows human-bear conflicts continued to be a pervasive issue in 2019, but bear euthanizations are less common than many believe.
Wildlife officials across the state received a total of 5,369 total bear calls from April 1 through Dec. 31, 2019, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s 2019 bear report. Of those calls, 517 involved bears breaking into houses and garages, with another 303 involved the animals breaking into vehicles.
The report showcases the first statewide database to collect information on bear issues across Colorado from regional CPW offices.
The volume of calls did not come as a surprise to wildlife officials whose workload, particularly in the summer, frequently consists of handling bear issues.
“It substantiated a lot of the information we knew or suspected,” said Matt Yamashita, an area wildlife manager based in Glenwood Springs.
While it underscores the prevalence of human-bear conflicts, it also shows the vast majority of those conflicts do not result in the killing of wildlife.
Statewide, 92 bears were euthanized in 2019, according to the report. That means about 1.7% of the year’s reported bear conflicts ended in death for the animal.
Officials hope the aggregated data can better inform current and future policies, not just for wildlife officials, but for communities, like Steamboat Springs, that deal regularly with bears.
About 408 calls, or 8% of the state total, came from the Steamboat area, according to Joe Lewandowski, the CPW media contact for the Northwest region. Of those calls, 181 involved food, such as bears getting into trash cans or bird feeders.
Statewide, one-third of all bear calls involved trash, according to the CPW report.
“Trash is by far the leading cause of bear habituation, and open dumpsters or trash cans provide an all-you-can-eat buffet when left unsecured,” the agency said in a news release published this week.
Of the bears involved in incidents in Routt County, three were killed by CPW officers, according to Lewandowski. The low euthanization rates at both the local and state levels are evidence, he claimed, of CPW’s reluctance to kill the animals.
“Euthanizing a bear is the last thing we want to do,” Lewandowski said.
Yamashita, the wildlife manager from Glenwood Springs, hopes the low euthanization numbers dispel the perception some people have of CPW officers being trigger-happy killers.
Officers like Yamashita typically operate on a two-strike system when it comes to dealing with bears that cause a nuisance. The first time a bear shows signs of habituation, such as repeatedly getting into garbage, officers relocate the animal. If the bear comes back, they typically resort to euthanization.
If a bear poses a more serious threat to people, officers may act more quickly to kill the animal.
This long-held policy, Yamashita explained, prioritizes public safety above the welfare of wildlife. For years, that remained the stance people wanted CPW to take when managing animals, he said. That attitude is showing signs of change.
“In many instances, we err on the side of protecting people from wildlife,” Yamashita said. “Now, we are hearing from the public that is not their preference.”
He referenced Pitkin County as an example of this shifting mindset. The county accounted for 21% of the state’s total bear calls in 2019, including an unprecedented three confirmed attacks, according to Yamashita.
He thought those attacks would be a rallying cry to gain more compliance for the community’s trash ordinances meant to reduce human-bear conflicts.
“It actually went the exact opposite,” Yamashita said. “People from the community said bears should not be punished, even after they have caused injury to a human.”
Following similar feedback from other communities, some wildlife managers are discussing alternative polices to bear management. It is too early to determine what changes, if any, could be made.
“All of us have to be on the exact same page as to what we are doing and why,” Yamashita said.
For now, the statewide data is being used to measure the efficacy of regional policies aimed at reducing human-bear conflicts, according to Yamashita.
“It will be a very useful management tool for us,” he said.
The city of Steamboat Springs is taking steps of its own to reduce human-bear conflicts. Steamboat Springs City Council is scheduled to vote Tuesday on the first reading of a stricter trash ordinance that would require residents and businesses to use bear-resistant trash cans and dumpsters.
Wildlife officials also are available to field questions from the public or offer advice on dealing with bears. According to Lewandowski, the Steamboat office received 221 calls in 2019, during which officials offered advice on bears.
To contact local the CPW office, call 970-870-2197.
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