by M. Diane Bairstow
In mid-April, a bear came to Amy and John Myzko’s house, tore through a 6’ electrified fence, ripped down their chicken coop and ate 15 chickens. After that it was quiet at the Myzko’s until the beginning of July. Since then they have had bear visits every night. Their dog sleeps in the garden and has kept it safe except for one night when they forgot to put him out, and the bear crunched the fence again. Most of their nightly visitors have run away from their dog, but one big, black “humongous” bear just stood there while the dog ran circles around him (Amy thinks it’s a male). They’ve seen babies, and a smaller, shyer cinnamon colored bear, which Amy thinks is female. For the last few days, (around Aug. 19, this is now the 22nd) the bears haven’t dropped by. Amy and John did a ceremony asking them to stay away. Maybe that helped, maybe they got word there were berries in the mountains, whatever the reason, it has been blessed relief for the Myzko’s.
Bears are always hungry
We’ve all heard the expression, “hungry as a bear,” but it takes on more meaning when you understand their feeding cycles. It takes bears a couple of weeks to fully wake up from hibernation; then they are literally (always) in near starvation mode through mid to late July. This is also their breeding season. From late July until they go into hibernation, they are in a state called hyperphagia, during this time a bear will eat up to 22 hours a day. Its main goal in life is to get as fat as possible; they can eat 15,000 to 20,000 calories a day and drink several gallons of water. Bears in our area are only active about 5 months out of the year as their hibernation time is dependent upon food availability. They will eat pretty much anything: bark, grass, dandelions, horsetail—any vegetation—bees (adult and larva), ants, wasps, carrion, whatever. Bears aren’t ferocious hunters, but in the spring they will hunt young deer, rodents, small animals, etc., until the berries start to ripen and vegetation begins to appear. An interesting factoid: bears have very flexible lips, sort of like monkeys’ prehensile tails, that can grasp and pluck, and when a bear finds a berry bush, she will sit there all day delicately plucking one berry after another.
Are our bears, really, really starving? Why are they all over town?
Half the people in town saw the mamma and her two cubs sleeping in the trees at Andrew and Kim Martinez’s place across from the Town Hall. Akia Tanara saw a huge black bear asleep in a tree just east of Warren Stephen’s house on Carbonate, and Mark Talbot saw a big cinnamon bear stretching on one of the cottonwoods next to the porch by the Eagle office at 3:00 in the morning. Mark is 6’2” tall and when he showed the Eaglettes the bear’s claw marks, he could just barely reach the top one. This bear turned and gave Mark a throaty growl when Mark hollered at it to move on.
This summer was pretty lean up in the mountains, and they began coming down into the towns earlier than usual. The DOW (Division of Wildlife) had calls about them throughout the Valley all summer long. Now fall food crops are coming on strong and there is ample food in the mountains and there are no reports of major food shortages anywhere (the DOW people go around up there checking). Chokecherries, currants, juniper and service berries are ample in our area. There are acorns, more to the north, and it appears we’re going to have a piñon crop this year.
Thus bears, which are always in near starvation mode during the summer, were extra hungry this year, but now they should be able to recover sufficiently to make it pretty easily through the winter. Bears are territorial animals and they will only tolerate other bears when there is abundance; that’s why we have so many bears here—there’s more than enough food for one and all. This is good for the bears’ stomachs, but bad for us, and ultimately bad for them.
Feeding bears is a bad idea
Once bears learn to associate food with humans—whether it’s in town or scattered around up in the mountains by kindhearted humans (they smell us on it and know where it came from)—they gradually lose their innate fear of humans and are likely to confront us to get it. Bears have not learned the social graces, and the way they ask is not always what we consider polite. While I was writing this story, a bear in the Aspen/Crater Lake area was hunted down and killed because he had become habituated to human food. He broke into two different tents in different areas while the campers were asleep. In both instances, the bear bit the camper on the leg. The first bite was minor, the second was worse, but the man could still hike out with his friends. The bear did not maul the campers, but (to my way of thinking) was just trying to get his attention—“hey, wake up” he was saying, “give me some food.” These campers had done everything right by putting their food up in the trees, etc., but not all campers do, and apparently this bear learned to associate food with tents. This bear was the innocent victim of human carelessness.
Our bears are getting bolder and more used to humans. Isadora Storey and Jeri McAndrews saw one at about 3:00 in the afternoon sitting in the middle of the spillway road not far from the last curve out of Crestone. They stopped the car and watched it for a while, then pulled up closer. The bear got up, walked around in a circle and plopped back down again in the road. Isadora and Jeri waited a while before pulling forward again. The bear got up and strolled off the road, where it moved casually through the trees as they drove past. Elizabeth Czhubirka and John Percival saw one at about noon 20 to 30 feet from their house standing behind a tree looking at them through the branches. Their dog Beau ran him off, but the bear came back several times and was seen on the steps just outside their patio door. Steve Anderson and Tom Whitehead watched the baby bears play in Tom’s yard during the middle of the day as mama bear sat under a tree looking on.
How many bears survive the winter during food shortages
Even in catastrophic food years, survival rates for adult bears are still high. Adults can go into hibernation a little skinny and still make it through the winter. Even during severe food shortages, 91 to 96% of adult females will make it through, and 82 to 92% of males. Tallying females of all ages, the numbers change to 84 to 96%, and 80 to 95% for males. Cubs and sub-adults are hit the hardest by food shortages. They range from 30% during catastrophic food shortages to 85% at the best of times.
Babies and sub-adults (in every species) are always at greatest risk. First-year babies stay with their mothers. They have to put on even extra weight for the winter as they are still growing during hibernation, and if they don’t, they are at greater risk of dying during that time. Sub-adults (second year cubs) begin going off on their own. Bears are territorial animals and the young have to find their own territory. Most territories are filled, making it difficult for the young cub to find a territory and get enough to eat to make it through the next winter. This is the reason survival rates in hibernation are lowest in cubs. The young are also at risk from adult males who will kill cubs that come into their territory, as this will put the female back into estrus, giving them a better chance of getting their genetic material into the world. To us, this is all heart-wrenching; to the bears, it’s simply life. It is survival of the fittest—the way of nature.
What can we do to protect our property and town?
The obvious. Don’t put food trash in your dumpsters until the morning of the pick-up, no bird feeders, etc. Keep windows closed anywhere near food. Cindy Santi and Chris Botz had a fryer full of oil in their mudroom and had left a small window open. A bear, probably a baby, skinnied through a window I could just barely have gotten through, drank the oil and left greasy footprints on the flagstones outside. Someone else told me about a bear reaching through a window to take a banana. Keep refrigerators and freezers out of the bear’s line of sight; they have learned to recognize them and will walk around a house until they see one, break in right there, and have a nice snack. The less food that is available, the fewer bears we will have. If the food supply dries up, one bear will take this over as his territory and run the rest of them out. Then we will only have one bear, and if that bear learns it’s best to stay away from humans, our town will be safer for us and for them. Meanwhile, it’s not a good idea to go walking around town at night, not even so much in the daytime as they are out and about at all hours—remember this is the time they can eat up to 22 hours a day—be careful.
Should I call the DOW with my problem bear?
Yes. Even though their policy is two strikes and the bear is out, calling about a bear in your garden or garbage does not constitute a strike. They don’t want to kill bears; they want to help us control them so we can all live in peace. They will come out and provide the information and techniques needed to bearproof your property. The earlier we call them, the better for the bears; the sooner they learn to stay away from humans, the better for us and them. When bears start getting strikes against them is when they have lost their fear of humans and, for instance, come into your home and then don’t run away even though you are shouting and banging pots and pans. Putting down bears is not a decision the DOW makes lightly; it is only when they lose their fear of humans and become a threat to us that they do it.
The responsibility is ours. If we make our neighborhoods inhospitable, we will have fewer problems, and the bears will leave us alone. If we think we’re helping them by leaving something in our garbage for them, taking them food, or letting them get into our dumpsters, the bears will get bolder and bolder and eventually they will be shot. It’s really not even a good idea to let them hang out in your yard looking cute. If they’re hanging out, bang pots, yell at them and run them off. They are huge, strong animals that can hurt our children, or us, and not even mean to. The less comfortable they are around human habitation the better.
Call the DOW for help with problem bears at 587-6900. After hours, in case of emergency (bear home invasions, children at risk) call the CO State Patrol at 589-5807.
Followup story: Breaking News about Mama bear of 2 young cubs shot by DOW near Crestone