Colorado wildlife officials want to reduce the number of bears across most parts of the state, and they are calling on hunters for help.
“We are trying to increase bear harvest to bring our bear populations down,” said Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologist Mark Vieira.
Each area of Colorado has a bear population goal set by CPW. But throughout most of the state, particularly on the Western Slope, bears outnumber the desired mark, Vieira said.
Typically, CPW manages wildlife populations in the state by adjusting the number of licenses available to hunters. If elk numbers are low, for example, hunting licenses can be limited to take the pressure off and allow the animal some time to recover.
In the past year, however, CPW has taken steps to make it easier and cheaper to hunt bears, arguing populations are too high, resulting in conflicts with people and private property.
“We took steps to put more bear licenses in the hands of folks who want to harvest bears,” Vieira said.
The number of available bear licenses, for instance, increased about 10% this fall. And in certain hunting units, regulations were lax on the maximum number of bears one hunter can harvest in a season. Now, it’s possible for one hunter to take up to four bears, if they so desire.
But by far, the biggest incentive, Vieira said, is that the price of a bear license for non-residents went down from $350 to $100. The cost to residents of Colorado, for reference, is $50 a license.
“The idea is to create more accessible bear hunting,” Vieira said.
Determining bear population numbers is a notoriously difficult task for wildlife managers. But Vieira said a rough estimate has that number somewhere between 17,000 to 20,000 bears in Colorado. In the past, hunters kill about 1,200 bears a year. Another 400 to 600 are shot by landowners, CPW or the U.S. Wildlife Service; or killed by vehicles.
Desired population goals for a specific part of Colorado aren’t an exact number, Vieira said. Instead, wildlife managers look at a variety of influencing metrics – such as reported conflicts with people or damage to property.
And the population goals, which are set in 10-year increments, involve a series of public meetings to hear if a community believes bears are a problem in their neighborhood. Ultimately, management strategies are approved by the Parks and Wildlife Commission.
In Southwest Colorado, for instance, wildlife managers say there’s a desire from the public to cut down bear numbers, a sentiment that largely arises after problem bears continually break into homes, get into trash or bird feeders, or rummage through chicken coops.
Vieira said those reported instances are on the rise.
“On the Western Slope, these mountain communities have always had bears,” he said. “But now we have more food sources, driven in large part by people.”
Another telling stat: CPW, which can reimburse people for wildlife damage, pays out about $300,000 a year statewide for about 100 claims of damage caused by bears, like killing livestock.
But some people say encouraging bear hunts in the forest will do nothing to solve the problem of bears who maraud around towns for food people leave out.
“Killing wilderness bears is targeting the innocents,” said David Petersen, a local author and hunter. “While it might reduce the overall bear population, it will have no impact on urban and suburban ‘problem’ bear populations.”
Petersen said when attempting to reduce human-bear conflicts, some will try to argue that increased hunting licenses will ease overcrowding in the forest, which may be driving more bears into towns where they encounter human food.
But he said there’s no research that shows forests are overcrowded or that more room in the woods would keep bears away from easily accessible human-food sources.
Several people agree reinstitution of the spring bear hunt, which was banned by Colorado voters in 1992, along with the use of hunting dogs and baiting, would do little to nothing to help.
“(Problem) bears are not the same ones a guy is going to be killing out in the forest,” Petersen told The Denver Post in a previous interview. “Unless you open a subdivision bear season, it’s going to have zero impact on garbage bears. Zero.”
Bryan Peterson with Bear Smart Durango agreed that previous studies have shown bear hunting has little or no affect in reducing human-bear conflict. Instead, research suggests the solution, for the most part, is improving human behavior.
“The best approach to reducing conflict is doing everything possible in having residents remove human foods that attract bears and lead to conflict,” he said.
In Durango, for example, the city has made a point to provide residents with more bear-proof trash cans. And there’s been a more robust effort to educate the public about best practices for living in bear country.
Although bear conflicts vary year by year and can depend heavily on available food sources in the forest, Durango’s code enforcement officer Steve Barkley said he’s seen a marked difference. So far this summer, the city has received only about 40 reports of bears breaking into trash.
“This year has been extremely quiet,” he said. “We seem to be going in the right direction.”
CPW’s Vieira acknowledged the agency’s most effective management tool – hunting – may not have an influence on the bears in town shielded from hunters. But, he said wildlife managers will keep a close eye on the situation.
“It’s a huge challenge for our agency,” he said. “We’ve got more people populating our Western Slope, which is often very good bear habitat, and bringing this new dimension of human food sources that carries the potential for conflicts.”