A man who is homeless was nipped by a black bear Wednesday morning while sleeping on public lands east of the Manna Soup Kitchen in Durango.
The man, who would identify himself only as Gary, said he was in a sleeping bag about 4:30 a.m. when he heard a bear breathing heavily.
He lay still as the bear sniffed a bag of clothes and then began sniffing at the sleeping bag. The bear nudged Gary’s feet and began chewing at the bag, he said.
“I almost froze up,” Gary said. “I had to take action. It was either he or me.”
Gary said he jumped up and yelled at the bear. The bear nipped Gary’s left wrist and lunged back. Gary used his camp mattress as a shield between him, and the bear and backed up slowly before turning to run down a hill.
“I’ve never run like that before,” he said.
He estimated the encounter lasted two minutes, including the time he lay still.
At 6:25 a.m., he walked into the fire station at 1235 Camino del Rio for medical attention, said Dave Imming, spokesman for Durango Fire & Rescue Authority.
The man was interviewed by the Colorado Division of Wildlife before being taken to Mercy Regional Medical Center. He received bandages but no stitches.
Federal wildlife officials found bear prints at the campsite and used a dog to track the bear. The 290-pound male bruin was located and killed Wednesday afternoon, said Joe Lewandowski, spokesman for the DOW in Durango.
It was located 100 to 200 yards from the site of the incident.
“It shows he was habituated to human activity in the area,” Lewandowski said.
He added: “It was a frightening situation for the man and the bear. A bear can go miles and miles away, but it didn’t. That is an indication that the bear is pretty accustomed to hanging around where it’s getting food rewards.”
Lewandowski said several homeless people camp in the area with food and garbage, which attracts bears.
“We’ve got people up there spreading trash in an area where they shouldn’t be,” he said. “If it’s not cleaned up, there are going to be more bears coming in there.
“We think there are some steps that can be taken to reduce the chances of this happening.”
Last week, the Durango Police Department posted trespassing notices at transient camp sites throughout the city, said Sgt. Ray Shupe. Officers will revisit the sites today and Friday to make sure illegal campers are complying or else issue tickets, he said.
“There’s no camping anywhere in city limits,” Shupe said.
Bears know no boundaries, so the situation is making it bad for surrounding neighborhoods, Lewandowski said.
“That whole west side of town – we’ve gotten a lot of reports in the last week of a lot of bear activity up there,” Lewandowski said. “It can cause problems for an entire neighborhood.”
A similar incident occurred about this time last year near the Manna Soup Kitchen.
Two men were sleeping under a blanket when a bear pulled the blanket with its teeth, biting a man’s arm in the process. The bite did not break the skin. The bear was tracked and killed about 300 yards away near Greenmount Cemetery.
Two days earlier, the body of Clifford Guptill, another homeless man, was found near the soup kitchen between the cemetery and the city’s recycling center. The body had been devoured by a bear.
The cause of death was listed as “undetermined,” but officials suspect he died of natural causes before the bear found the body.
The bear’s body was sent to Colorado State University for a necropsy – an animal autopsy – to determine if it had human remains in its stool.
The results were positive with Guptill’s remains, Lewandowski said.
Wednesday’s incident shouldn’t be considered a “bear attack,” Lewandowski said.
“Bears live by their noses,” he said. “If they smell something that seems to be food, they’re going to try to go for it.”
Black bears are not aggressive creatures by nature, Lewandowski said.
“Most of their diet is a vegetarian-type of diet,” he said. “But they’re opportunists. They have to eat a lot during the summer months to get ready for hibernation. They live by their nose, and if something appears attractive to them, they’re going to check it out. There can be dangerous situations if people are exposing themselves in that way.”
Gary said he planed to spend Wednesday night at the Volunteers of America Community Shelter.
“I thought I was dreaming,” he said of the encounter.