Bear sightings and conflicts with humans down in 2023

CPW attributes decrease to ample foraging

By Katherine Nettles

Spring is coming and bruins are likely to begin stirring from their winter hibernation. That means hungry bear season. Recent reports from Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) show human-bear conflicts decreased in 2023, due to availability of forage material in the wilderness versus foraging material in town dumpsters. 

 Both state-wide counts and local Gunnison County figures indicate that reports of bear sightings and human conflicts with bears were down substantially last year. CPW received 3,526 reports of sightings and conflicts with bears in 2023 across Colorado, down 21% from the average number of reports received from 2019 to 2023. For Gunnison County, the CPW office received 97 reports of bear activity—67 of which were related to property damage. The other reports were simply sightings without conflict. Most bear reports occur from April through November, and trash continues to be the primary source of conflicts between humans and bears.

CPW public information officer Jonathan Livingston says there were no recorded bear attacks in Gunnison County last year and only one report related to aggressive behavior when a bear that had broken into a shed did not immediately respond to hazing methods.

Two Gunnison County bears were euthanized by CPW in 2023. One had broken into several businesses and homes and caused considerable damage. The other had broken into the same house three times and three other separate homes in the same subdivision, all within the span of a month. 

Throughout the state, 1,795 of the (3,526 total) reports CPW received resulted from property damage to a shed, garage, home, vehicle or fence. Around 92% of property damage reported from bears is linked to an attractant of some kind, says Livingston, with over 51% linked to trash, 20% to livestock, chickens and beehives, and 19% to bird seed, pet food, barbeque grills, coolers and refrigerators. 

Analyzing new data

CPW wildlife managers estimate there are 17,000 to 20,000 bears in Colorado. The agency launched a new bear reporting system in April 2019 to help track and quantify bear activity and conflicts across the state, and the data collected is now used to identify overall trends and sources of conflict on a localized, regional and statewide level. CPW has recorded 21,310 reports of sightings and conflicts with bears since this new system was implemented in 2019. 

CPW notes that nature itself plays a large role in the amount of annual bear activity, as drought conditions and weather can influence the availability of natural food crops. Late spring freezes vary across the state and can interfere with natural food production cycles. In 2023, CPW reports that the majority of the Eastern Slope received adequate temperatures and rainfall to produce natural forage, and reports on the East Slope remained steady with CPW’s Northeast region receiving 905 reports and the Southeast regions receiving 696 reports.

CPW’s Northwest region has the largest bear population in the state and received 1,228 reports in 2023, 35% less than in 2022. In a press release from CPW, the agency reported that “Despite good natural forage in the area, an unreasonable number of bears were reported entering homes. Reports remained steady in CPW’s Southwest region at 697.” 

Report bears…early and often

Wildlife managers say that human reluctance to report bears for fear of getting them euthanized is a major cause of ultimate human-bear conflict. Livingston notes that not all bear euthanizations are a result of conflict, and some are for humane reasons when an injured bear is suffering unnecessarily and would not be able to recover from its injuries.  

The sooner CPW learns of conflicts involving bears, the better the outcome, according to Livingston. CPW’s data shows that of the 3,526 reports in 2023, only 1.8% led to euthanization. The vast majority led to wildlife officers getting involved early enough to prevent the need to end a bear’s life. 

“Our officers do not want conflicts to rise to the level where they are having to trap a bear for relocation or to be euthanized,” says Livingston. “Our goal is to educate the public first and to help identify what is bringing a bear to human occupied areas with the goal of never having to directly handle the bear and having it return to natural food sources. In many cases when notified early when sightings first occur, CPW is able to assess a residence or neighborhood for those attractants. Once those attractants are removed or properly secured, bears will usually stop coming around and we don’t see further conflicts.”

To that effect, CPW awarded almost $1 million in 2023 to local communities, municipalities, businesses and nonprofit organizations for projects to provide innovative solutions and reduce human-bear conflicts. 

This included $69,000 awarded to the City of Gunnison where bear conflicts are an issue, particularly along neighborhoods adjacent to the Gunnison River. Most of these conflicts have historically occurred in unmanaged and overflowing dumpster locations, and the city has modified its refuse codes regarding overfill and overnight trash can storage. It has also used this funding to help qualified residents in high-conflict areas purchase bear-resistant trash cans and purchase bear-resistant dumpster containers to replace existing dumpsters frequented by bears. 

Livingston emphasizes that the goal is to work with people on the problem of attracting bears in the first place, and hazing them away. 

“Many folks in our communities believe they know how to live with bears properly, but we still see so many of the same sources that create conflict each year, such as unsecured trash, bird feeders, etc.,” he says. “We also have people moving into our mountain communities who are not used to living where bears are present, and it requires a continual effort to educate the public on making sure their actions do not lead to human-bear conflict.”

Gunnison County bear reports by the numbers 

2023: 97 reports to CPW, 67 for property damage. One report of aggressive behavior, zero attacks. Two were euthanized, one for having broken into several businesses and homes, and the other for having broken into the same house three times and three other separate homes within a month. 

2022: 127 reports to CPW, 90 for property damage. Four reports of aggressive behavior, zero attacks. One was euthanized that had broken into several homes and had charged people and shredded a camper’s tent.

2021: Only 51 bear reports to CPW, 38 for property damage. Zero euthanized, zero attacks and only one report of aggressive behavior.

2020*: 124 reports to CPW, 82 for property damage. Zero attacks, two reported for aggressive behavior. Three euthanized, two of which broke into homes and one who was in the act of depredating a goat. 

*2020 was a notoriously bad year for natural forage production with drought conditions and a late spring freeze severely limiting berry and shrub oak availability. These conditions led to a disproportionately high number of human-bear conflicts.

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