This year, however, Vail and the surrounding mountain towns have been strangely void of bear activity, thanks to plentiful berries, roots, mushrooms and plants, and also to the increased protective measures adopted by towns and the U.S. Forest Service.
Bear calls down
This fall, warmer temperatures and regular rain showers have meant lusher hillsides and plentiful natural food sources for bears in local forests, meaning the animals haven’t been as tempted to wander into areas populated by humans. Local law enforcement has noticed the change — last year, the Vail Police Department recorded 95 bear-related reports, compared to only four this year. Similarly, the Avon Police Department got a record 131 bear calls last year, compared to 15 this year.
“We’re just not seeing any bears in town at all,” said Avon Police Chief Bob Ticer. “Bear activity has really been nonexistent. The towns have really appreciated people staying with the town ordinances and making sure trash containers are bear-proof.”
Vail police officer Craig Westering chalks it up to plentiful food and residents complying with regulations.
“Bears have had plenty of berries to choose from this year because of the late rain,” he said. “Also a few of our trouble bears have moved out of the Vail area looking for other areas that have easier access to human trash and food. The Vail PD officers have been staying on top of the container violations, and this has helped tremendously this summer.”
The problem begins when there’s a natural food shortage — such as last year — or when bears are switching between food sources according to the season, said Julie Mao, terrestrial biologist with the Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
“We really emphasize that whether it’s a good or bad food year, just to really clean up your trash and keep foods stored away,” she said. “It’s a good practice in general.”
Rehabilitating bears, training humans
Bear-human conflicts on public lands have been down since the spring as well, said Lara Duran, a wildlife biologist with the Eagle-Holy Cross Ranger District.
The consequences for bears that get into human areas are usually much greater for the animal than the humans — the general policy is that if a bear has three run-ins with humans, then they are either relocated or put down. This year, fortunately, the number of bears put down has been much smaller than previous years, Duran said.
“Last year, there was a very high stress on bears because of the drought and the lack of food,” Duran said. “They had a hard time making a living just on public lands. Also this year, a lot of bears had learned those urban or suburban foraging behaviors as cubs.”
Bears emerged from hibernation this spring hungrier than usual, but thanks to an abundance of berries and acorns and new campground rules, bear problems have been kept at a minimum through the summer and fall.
Forest Service regulations in many area campsites now require campers and hikers to keep anything with an odor — food, utensils, toothpaste, deodorant, fuel, trash — either in a vehicle or in a bear-proof container.
“Co-existing with bears is a lot about changing people’s behaviors,” Duran said. “Our public frankly contributes to it because we leave scraps of food on the ground and pour grease or trash in the rings.”
She adds that there’s a misconception that bears are only attracted to food, when in reality anything with a strong odor will attract them. Not only can they smell meat carcasses up to a mile away, but once they remember a place as a food source, they don’t forget, increasing the chances that they will come back again.
Now is the time for humans to continue being vigilant as bears load up on calories from September through November in preparation for hibernation. Town and wildlife authorities remind people to continue complying with regulations both in town and on public lands. That means using bear-proof containers, following food closure regulations at campsites and packing in and packing out.
“Now they’re trying to pack on the pounds, and they eat a lot of calories in a short time. They can double their weight during this time. Food is their priority right now,” said Duran.
Assistant Managing Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 970-748-2927