A situation in the Hurt Valley in Aspen Springs illustrates a larger problem in Pagosa Country: Bears are hungry, on the prowl and, if exposed to humans and their food waste, can become more than just a nuisance.
In the Hurt Valley incident, a large black bear was suspected in a number of attacks on domestic animals and was allegedly responsible for the slaughter of eight sheep and two domestic goats during the course of several days.
“We suspect there were more,” said Joe Lewandowski, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Wildlife (DOW), “due to other reports.”
Around 11:30 p.m. June 29, the bear was shot and killed by a USDA tracker and was identified as a mature 300-pound boar (male bear). According to Lewandowski, a tooth was taken from the bear (to determine the bear’s age and sex), as well as a blood sample, for research purposes.
Lewandowski added that the hide will be taken from the bear and will be auctioned off later in the year, along with horns from deer, elk and mountain goats (usually taken by law enforcement).
Hurt Valley resident Steve Keno said that raids had been going on in the neighborhood “for about two weeks” and confirmed Lewandowski’s statement that other attacks had taken place. Neighboring resident Dan Snow reported that both goats and five of the sheep had belonged to him and confirmed a timeline for the attacks congruent with Keno’s account.
Lewandowski attributed the attacks to the bear’s access to easy food such as garbage, pet food, bird seed and livestock feed.
“Most people are pretty good about putting their garbage up and locking up feed or pet food every night, but that can be difficult, especially for large-scale ranchers, it’s a lot to ask,” said Lewandowski.
Lewandowski added that, while most area residents cooperate with DOW suggestions, “Unfortunately, if there’s one or two with garbage out and accessible, once the bear habituates to those food sources, it’s pretty much doomed.”
In early spring, when bears first awake from months of hibernation, new plant growth and fresh grass make up a groggy bear’s diet as the animal kick-starts its recently dormant digestive system.
However, once active, the large omnivores are nearly always on a search for food. While wild foods are essential for a bear’s natural diet — berries, insects, acorns, forbs, plants and carrion — the opportunistic feeders will exploit any available food supply, and it is when a bear begins feeding on easily accessible food from human supplies that conflicts begin.
Tragically, once a bear begins raiding food from human sources, the result almost invariably is an untimely death for the bear.
Once a bear has been identified as a nuisance in residential or business areas, DOW officials are called in to try and relocate the bear back into the wild. Taking the animal down with tranquilizers, wildlife officials tag the animal for future identification before releasing it into the back country.
Unfortunately, a “two-strike” policy is the only reprieve given to the animal and the intelligent and voracious bears are rarely rehabilitated. More often than not, a tagged bear will return to raiding garbage containers, pet food supplies, stores of bird seed, or any other source humans have carelessly made available to a foraging bear. With its return, the tagged bear has had its death warrant signed by people not conscientious enough to secure trash containers or lock away other food sources.
While vegetation composes about 85 percent of a black bear’s diet, they are known predators, usually preying on mule and white-tailed deer fawns when the opportunity arises, but also young livestock, given stealth, skill and an ability to escape mature cattle (and irate ranchers).
The bear in the Hurt Valley incidents was a “rogue bear” in that it had not been previously tagged and was slaughtering livestock for no apparent reason. According to Snow and Keno, predation didn’t appear to be the bear’s motive, but simply to kill for the sake of killing.
Lewandowski responded that, while such behavior is rare, it is far from unheard of, adding, “Once they get that taste, they’ll just keep raising hell.”
With the Hurt Valley incident, far from common, but nonetheless not isolated, the indication is that bears are on the prowl. With some common-sense precautions (see sidebar), residents and home owners can not only prevent unwanted conflicts with bears, but, in preventing those conflicts, save an animal’s life by forcing the bear to seek more appropriate sources for food.