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Monday March 27th 2023

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Difficult Decisions: Managing Wildlife on the Urban Fringe


The sow’s 75lb cub on its way to a new home. Photo courtesy CDOW.

Working with wildlife in urban settings is always a challenge.  Unlike television depictions of resource management, real world wildlife management involves on the spot decision-making, influenced by variables and exigencies provided by location, nature and people.  In working with wildlife one should always expect the unexpected.  In most cases the outcome is good for the animal as well as the public safety that we are charged with protecting.  However, despite our best hopes and aspirations for positive results, occasionally difficult choices must be made and unavoidable circumstances dictate grim outcomes.  This was, in part, the case recently with the sow bear and cub that had been frequenting the Newlands neighborhood in Boulder.

For Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW) officers, Boulder Rangers, Boulder Police officers and Bear Aware Volunteers, working with bears is an almost daily occurrence in Boulder during the summer.  We field dozens of calls, keeping track of specific bears frequenting particular neighborhoods, “sitting” with bears while they are up trees or moving through town, providing information to residents on how to minimize attracting bears to homes or neighborhoods, softly encouraging bears to move back to open lands, or hazing bears with beanbags, rubber buckshot, whistles, horns, or pepper spray to hopefully move them out of town.  When absolutely necessary we set humane traps or tranquilize bears that we then try to move to safer habitat.  Unfortunately, with development in Colorado we have fewer and fewer places to move bears to.  And when public safety absolutely dictates it, we kill bears.  As wildlife officers that is an absolutely horrendous decision to have to make, but sometimes there is no other reasonable option.  For officers and volunteers working on bears in town it is totally disheartening to know that by the time we are notified of a problem the bear has become habituated to town by unsecured trash and other attractants that draw bears allowing them to become comfortable being near human habitations.  Through carelessness or intentional acts, humans may be complicit in altering a bear’s behavior in a way that may ultimately lead to that bear’s death.

In the case of the Newlands sow and cub, officers had been aware that these bears were spending the day on Sanitas Open Space and raiding garbage in alleys at night.  They had been softly pushed out of the neighborhood.  They had been hazed with rubber buckshot.  Officers had spoken with neighbors about garbage left out.  Officers had spoken with neighbors planting new fruit trees that will be a future attractant for wildlife into town.  Bear Aware Volunteers went door to door in some of the neighborhoods to provide information on reducing bear attractants.

On September 1st police and DOW officers received word that the sow and cub were up a tree about two blocks from open space.  Wildlife officers, police and Boulder Rangers all responded promptly and set up a perimeter to minimize disturbance to the bear.  We began to discuss the proper course of action for the bears and public safety when we noticed that the sow had a wound to her muzzle.  Using binoculars and spotting scope it was determined that the adult sow had an absolutely horrific and ghastly wound.  Her entire lower jaw and about ¾ of her tongue had been ripped away and were gone.  All officers on scene verified the extent and seriousness of her wounds.  In discussion by telephone with a Division of Wildlife Veterinarian we all concurred that the wound was not repairable, was debilitating and ultimately would lead to the decline and death of the sow through infection and/or starvation.  Reasonably, we considered that if left on its own to decline the bear was likely to remain in town and, being injured, starved and desperate, could become dangerous to humans. Consequently, the supervising wildlife officer on scene made the lamentable but unavoidable decision to tranquilize and then kill the sow bear, and attempt to capture the cub.  When safely handling sow and cubs it is essential to first tranquilize the sow, and this was done.  The cub was healthy, robust and wary.  While DOW policy recommends not taking bear cubs to rehab after August 15, officers on scene wanted to capture the young bear to make certain it was healthy and, if needed, take it to a licensed wildlife rehabber.  Not wanting to risk injury to the cub, officers patiently waited to tranquilize it when it came down out of the tree, and it was hit with a dart.  With unexpected vigor the cub bear charged away.  Officers pursued and searched extensively through the neighborhood for the cub, but it gave us the slip.  Dense vegetation, fences, and topography put the cub at the advantage that day.  Fortunately there were several great pictures taken of the cub in the tree showing distinctive markings on its muzzle.

For seventeen days the cub was on its own, successfully eluding efforts to capture it.  With abundant food and dense cover the cub was able to thrive.  During this time, humane traps were set, and officers responded to reports of the cub in yards and on open space.  Finally, with the help of one very dedicated Newlands resident, who continued to set, monitor, and maintain a DOW trap on her property, the cub was captured.  A spot was reserved with a licensed rehabber on the west slope and preliminary arrangements were made for transport.  Licensed wildlife rehabbers will only take injured or orphaned wildlife when necessary to increase the animal’s chance of long-term survival.  When the cub was tranquilized and removed from the trap it was found to be a 75 pound female.  It is not recommended to take late summer cubs over fifty pounds for rehab, as they are generally ready to eke out a living on their own.  By telephone the licensed rehabber and a DOW veterinarian both recommended that the young bear would have a better chance of survival with direct relocation rather than placement in a rehab facility.  Since the cub was highly habituated to the Newlands neighborhood and would likely eventually wind up as a problem bear, the decision was made to find a more remote location in quality bear habitat.  The next morning the bear was transported and released on the west slope of Colorado away from town.  Our hope is that she adjusts well to her new home and finds a secure winter den site when the snow flies.  This is what young bears do.

As wildlife managers we are tasked with often difficult decisions, especially in urban areas.  We are asked to strike the careful balance between advocating for the needs of wildlife and protecting human safety.  We are expected to right wrongs over which there is little control. We are placed in situations with options and outcomes but no clear answers.  There are moments when we triumph, when experience predicting wildlife behavior, or sometimes good fortune, results in positive outcomes.  There are also moments when we deeply struggle with no win situations with depressing ends.  When that happens the evening trip home is long, filled with thoughts about what could have been done differently, and in the end sometimes there was no better solution.

While many of the ultimate decisions are ours, prevention of such tragic situations is the responsibility of everyone.  Members of the community may not agree with our decisions but they have the power to keep us from having to make them in the first place.  The solution lies in responsible trash containment and removal of other attractants.  If anything is to be gained from this ordeal let it be that we all think of this bear as we work and live in Boulder and use that thought of her to motivate us to help other bears in the future.

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