Will drought conditions impact bear foraging this fall?
Lower levels of their natural forage could mean more human-bear conflicts this fall
Each fall, as the county’s local bear population prepares to hunker down for winter, the human population begins to do its part to minimize conflicts over food.
As drought conditions across most of Eagle County remain between severe and exceptional, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, local wildlife experts are considering the impact this could have on bears’ natural food sources.
According to Miguel Jauregui, a code enforcement officer for the Vail Police Department, the time between mid-August to late-September is known as “prehibernation hyperphagia,” characterized as a time when bears start eating excessively — meaning that they eat from 15,000 to 20,000 calories a day.
“They’ll start eating about 24 hours a day, and a lot of people would like to say that there’s one specific reason, but the reality is bears typically choose natural foods first, and between the drought pattern and the fires, the berry crop is just lower than usual. And when berry crops are low and there’s a drought pattern, there tends to be an increase in bear activity,” Jauregui said, adding that “We’ve been in this drought pattern for a while, so I don’t see this being a particularly different year to last year or the year prior.”
Travis Duncan, a public information officer with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, noted that berry and acorn mast this year has been “relatively stunted due to the hot and dry conditions” in Eagle County.
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However, at higher elevations in the county, there is a growing bright spot this year. Duncan said that, even though the crops are still slightly below average, choke cherries and service berries are starting to come in.
Duncan referred to the conditions of the natural forage for bears as having “halfway decent availability” as we head into fall.
According to Duncan, the local Colorado Parks and Wildlife district wildlife managers remain uncertain about what this next season might bring.
“We’re not quite sure what the rest of the year might look like,” Duncan said. “It’s always changing, despite lack of abundance or abundance of natural food sources. No matter what, we’re always pushing that message of being bear aware and having folks secure food sources and trash to minimize bear exposure and bears getting habituated to natural food sources.”
Conflicts bear-ly rise
So far this year, Duncan said local district wildlife managers have experienced a slightly above average number of human-bear conflicts in portions of Eagle County, adding that municipal law enforcement has been fielding calls “almost daily.”
In Vail, according to its most recent bear report, sightings in public areas are up year-over-ear, while sightings in residential neighborhoods have seen a slight decline from this time last year.
David Boyd, a public affairs officer for the White River National Forest, said that so far, the Forest Service has experienced issues “like we do every year, but nothing out of the ordinary.”
Most recently, this included an incident in Chapman Campground in the Frying Pan drainage where a bear became familiar with the area as a source for food. While the increased bear activity forced the Forest Service to close the campground to all but hard-sided campers, the bear was ultimately relocated.
“All of those are more related so far to humans storing food and garbage inappropriately, rather than an environmental condition influencing the bears,” Boyd said.
The best way to limit human-bear conflict — regardless of environmental or climate conditions — is for individuals to “secure their food sources,” Duncan said. He added that this refers to any food source — whether it’s keeping your outdoor grill clean, closing your screen door while cooking or whether it’s while camping or hiking.
“The biggest problem we have, not just in Eagle County but statewide, is unsecured food sources and bears getting habituated to humans and finding unnatural food sources,” Duncan said. “That creates an animal that’s found an easy meal and then becomes habituated to being around humans. Once a bear, or any wild animal, isn’t afraid of humans anymore, it creates a real danger for humans, for the animals and that’s when a bear becomes a threat to health and human safety.”
Climate impacts on wildlife
Bears aren’t the only wildlife species that are experiencing the impacts of climate change as rising temperatures, dry climate and raging wildfires affect the natural habitats of many of our county’s creatures.
“Most folks on the Western Slope know we’ve experienced a pretty severe drought this year, so that can affect food sources and other things,” Duncan said. “We’re not sure what’s going to happen, but we are asking folks to be mindful of the conditions, not just with bears, but with all wildlife.”
Specifically right now, he said this includes voluntary fishing closures as a result of rising water temperatures on Colorado’s rivers.
“Once there are multiple days in a row in our rivers of 70 degree plus temperatures, we start to see fish mortality,” Duncan said. “So we’re not over-stressing trout that is in the water, we’re asking anglers to check the conditions.”
Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at email@example.com.