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Monday March 27th 2023

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That's what she said

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Save Bears by Keeping Them Away From Boulder


At a PLAN-Boulder County forum on Friday, April 8, Kristin Cannon, district manager of the North Boulder district for Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), stated that to her knowledge no humans in the City of Boulder had been injured by bears since she started in that position in 2009 and one human may have been so injured in the city before she began that the job. At the same forum, another spokesperson for CPW declared that a total of 25 people in Colorado had been wounded by bears in the last ten years.

Panelists (l-r): Brenda Lee of the Boulder Bear Coalition, Kristin Cannon of the CPW, Valerie Matheson of the city, and author Alan Boles

Panelists (l-r): Brenda Lee of the Boulder Bear Coalition, Kristin Cannon of the CPW, Valerie Matheson of the City of Boulder, and author Alan Boles

Despite this low rate of injury, Cannon maintained that as bears learn to associate humans with food and lose their fear of people, they become much more prone to attack humans. Cannon also suggested that CPW’s approach to bears in the city may have contributed to the absence of bear-human conflicts during the last seven years.

CPW has exclusive jurisdiction over wildlife, including bears, in Colorado. Cannon said that its practice is to remove bears from the city, either by hazing or formal relocation, as soon as it can muster the resources to do so in order to prevent the animals from becoming habituated to people. Nevertheless, Cannon also said that most times when CPW receives a report of a bear in the city the agency does nothing and the bear leaves on its own.

Another member of the forum panel, Valerie Matheson, urban wildlife conservation coordinator for the City of Boulder, said that in 2015 the Boulder police received 440 calls about bears, all of which were forwarded to the CPW. She said that four bear relocations and one bear euthanasia occurred as a result.

The previous year three bears in the city were euthanized by CPW.

Cannon disclosed that the CPW’s policy is to destroy any bear that has been removed from a location and then returns to it. Sixty to seventy percent of bears return to the location of their capture, she claimed, although the rate for juvenile bears is significantly lower. Bears that return to the capture location are considered by CPW to have become habituated to it and likely to keep returning. In CPW’s view those bears are more likely to attack humans because they have become used to them.

Cannon readily acknowledged that some communities, such as Boulder, are more tolerant of bears and willing to assume a higher risk of bear assaults than others. The CPW staff tends to adjust their bear relocation practices accordingly, she indicated.

Cannon said that if CPW staff wants to relocate a bear to a district other than the one in which it was captured, it has to obtain the permission of the CPW staff in the district preferred for the relocation. Because bears are much more likely to enter populated areas when the natural food supply is scarce, CPW staff all over the state is usually trying to relocate bears to other districts all at the same time. The heavy relocation demand means that few, if any, are located outside of the district where they were captured.

Relocation of a bear within the district of its capture can be accomplished much more easily. But, of course, the bear will then remain closer to the site of its capture and be more likely to return. Cannon said that the North Boulder District extends from the Wyoming border south to I-70 and from 1-25 west to the continental divide.

Cannon explained that CPW considers its mission to be maintaining the proper overall population of bears in the state, not protecting the life of any individual bear. She said that 17,000 to 20,000 bears live in Colorado. Their population is limited by issuing hunting licenses, the number of which will be adjusted if the bear population is considered too high or too low.

The proper number of bears is determined on the basis of judgments about the amount of food naturally available to them. Cannon said that the right number of bears for the Boulder district is currently deemed to be a little more than 500. The actual number of bears living in the district is believed to be about 550. Cannon said that relatively few people are interested in hunting bears in this district and that only one has been killed by a hunter in the last four to five years.

Bears are naturally wary of humans and tend to avoid land that is inhabited by them, Cannon commented. However, they will enter settled areas in search of food, particularly if natural food supplies are limited.

Brenda Lee, the third panelist at the forum and the founder of the Boulder Bear Coalition, observed that the best way to prevent bears from being destroyed by CPW is to prevent them from being relocated, the best way to prevent them from being relocated is to prevent them from entering the city, and the best way to keep them from entering the city is eliminate food sources that would attract them.

Matheson said that over 70 percent of what bears in the city eat is trash. The next largest sources of food are bird feeders and fruit trees.

Matheson asserted that the city ordinance requiring bear-proof trash containers in the western area of Boulder seemed to be achieving success in reducing the urban food supply for bears. Matheson said that the ordinance applies to 12,000 residences and became effective in 2014. However, the city had not attempted to enforce it fully until 2016.

Lee said that the ordinance is enforced by the Boulder Police Department. In 2014 and part of 2015 it followed a practice of issuing warnings to violators for a first offense and a ticket (which costs $250 the first time, $500 the second, and more thereafter) only for the second offense. The department believed that this relatively tolerant approach was the best way to achieve compliance. However, the peak period for violations of this ordinance is the month of August, when new students are moving into Boulder and the bears are eating all they can to load up with calories for their winter hibernation. So the typical three-week period between a warning and a ticket often meant that bears were becoming very accustomed to food from the unlatched trash bins.

Lee said that she recorded hundreds of ordinance violations last summer and complained about them to the City Council. To its credit, the council addressed the issue late last summer and instructed the Police Department to issue tickets for first violations and forget the warnings. Matheson said that the supervisor of code enforcement for the Police Department, Jennifer Riley, understands the need for prompt action and that the city has hired an additional code enforcement office this year.

Matheson said that the city’s trash bin ordinance might someday be extended to cover areas east of Broadway, but that the city has no plans to do so at this time. It was noted by audience members that the one bear destroyed by CPW in 2015, “Bear #317,” generally inhabited the Whittier neighborhood, east of Broadway.

Matheson commented that bears are very smart and many of them probably could figure out how to manipulate the latches on the city’s bear-proof containers so as to open them. However, she said she does not believe that any have actually done so to date.

Lee declared that peer pressure can be very effective in inducing people to comply with the trash bin ordinance and to remove other sources of bear food from their properties. Lee asserted that citizens groups, such as the Boulder Beer Coalition, may be able to generate more public cooperation with measures to deter bears from staying in the city than could governmental entities.

An audience member pointed out that the 2013 flood ruined riparian areas along Gregory Creek, McClintock, and other water courses that traditionally have served as a good natural food sources for bears. She suggested that this loss may have forced them to rely more on human-produced food in the following years.

The same audience member observed that in the warmer months the trash piles up on the weekends in Eben Fine Park and acts as a magnet for bears. She implied that the city Parks Department should be removing that trash every night.

Another audience member asked why CPW does not put electronic collars on bears that have been relocated, track them, and then haze them if they seem to be on their way back to Boulder. Cannon added that an invisible electronic fence could even be installed around Boulder to deter bears wearing collars. Cannon said that the CPW was open to both ideas, but that at the moment their cost was too high.

She said the expense of putting collars on six bears would be about $15,000, and then approximately another $2,000 a year would have to be paid to a data collection company. All three panelists concurred that such costs would probably decrease in the future and that at some point such electronic monitoring and deterrence may well become financially feasible.

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