WCU student working on plan to manage black bears

With a changing climate, experts expect winters to start later and spring to arrive earlier. This may shorten the length of bear hibernation, while decreasing their food supply in late fall and early spring. These changes have the potential to push bears into town more often in search of anthropogenic food sources.

Western Colorado University (WCU) graduate student Cassie Mendoza is working with Colorado Parks and Wildlife on a project to investigate black bear conflicts in the Gunnison area and potentially develop a management plan for the city of Gunnison to reduce human-bear conflict.

“With the current climate issues that we’ve been having, and since Gunnison experiences such extreme highs and lows of climate, [Colorado Parks and Wildlife] anticipates more bear conflicts in the valley,” Mendoza said. The need for conflict resolution management and public education surrounding bear issues are greater than ever.

Black bears are an indicator species in ecosystems surrounding Gunnison. Wildlife managers can look at the health of bear populations and gauge the health of the entire ecosystem. They also contribute to our local economies, whether it be through hunting or through other wildlife-related tourism. While the policy aspect of this plan is of vital importance, it cannot happen without community buy-in. Mendoza’s community sponsor, district wildlife manager Brandon Diamond, said that the sky is the limit for public education surrounding bear issues; however, those efforts are dependent on available resources and community priorities.

Already, in December 2019, Mendoza hosted a two-day seminar series on Western’s campus with multiple speakers. Community members and students alike attended and learned how to decrease the risk of conflict with wildlife. A cast of voices has already chimed in on black bear conflict management in Gunnison, and Mendoza’s project only looks to expand that reach.

Simple changes in citizen behavior and decision-making have great potential to decrease the likelihood of bear conflicts.

Many people do not realize that bird feeders are a strong attractant for bears in town, often leading to future conflicts. The sugary water available in hummingbird feeders is often sought after by hungry bears. An easy fix for homeowners is to provide natural flower beds or hanging flower baskets to attract hummingbirds. Flowers still provide great bird watching, while not encouraging conflict with bears and other wildlife. Other small changes such as waiting to put out the trash until an hour or two before pick-up instead of the night before can decrease the risk of wildlife conflicts substantially.

City ordinances can provide incentives for these changes, but public education is foundational for long-term community change. Deer are a great local example of how citizen behavior can decrease wildlife conflict: “People think they are helping wildlife by feeding them artificial foods… What they don’t realize is that they are attracting deer predators such as mountain lions, increasing the potential for disease transmission and impacting individual animal health,” Diamond said.

Wildlife is certainly a community amenity and contributes to people’s quality of life, but keeping wildlife wild is something we truly need to mean when we say it.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife has a two-strike policy on “problem bears.” The first time a bear comes into significant conflict with humans, it may be trapped and relocated. In the process, a tag is attached to the bear’s ear. If the same bear is to come into conflict with humans again, it has to be put down. Diamond emphasizes that relocation is a last resort option, but the policy is in place primarily to protect human health and safety. An effective bear management plan paired with citizen action will help serve and protect local black bears and citizens. “We want to keep the people in town safe, the community safe and reduce property damage, but also keep the bear population safe because they are such an important species to the ecosystem,” Mendoza said.

With the support of the city and citizens, Mendoza’s project has the potential to seriously reduce the rate of conflict with black bears. The Gunnison community has a documented track record of protecting local wildlife, with continued interest in conservation. A black bear conflict mitigation strategy would certainly add to the legacy of protecting wildlife, community members and our local quality of life.

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