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Bear encounters: More to come?

Image: Black bear
Between 16,000 and 18,000 black bears share Colorado with 5.2 million humans.Getty Images
/ Source: Discovery Channel

Black bears have been making headlines around Colorado this summer as they've conspicuously wandered into densely populated areas, rummaged through garbage bins and campsites, and even broken into homes.

In Aspen, August was a record-setting month for human-bear encounters, according to The Aspen Times.

While some experts have blamed drought for pushing the animals into towns and cities this year, bears face a number of challenges that seem to be making it increasingly difficult for them to find food in the wild, said Randy Hampton, spokesman for Colorado Parks and Wildlife in Denver.

"Over the last eight years, we have seen an increase in bear-human conflicts every year," Hampton said. "So drought is a contributing factor, but undoubtedly it seems like every year, we have some kind of issue that comes up."

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The trend has fueled debate about how to keep bears out of trouble.

The standard advice is for people in bear-dwelling areas to stop filling bird feeders during the summer and to follow strict trash ordinances, like using bear-proof bins or keeping trash away from the curb until the morning of pick-up.

Some researchers, however, argue that setting up feeding stations for bears near populated areas can keep hungry animals from bothering people, especially in years where natural food sources are scarce.

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In a paper published last year in the journal Human-Wildlife Interactions, bear biologist Lynn Rogers reported an 88 percent drop in bear problems along a four-mile stretch of residences and campgrounds near Ely, Minn., after he placed and continually replenished a box of beef fat, grapes and other food onto a platform in the middle of the area.

In the three years before the study began in the early 1980s, two nuisance bears had to be removed each year. After the food station was introduced, a total of just two bears had to be taken away over the next eight years. In those cases, both bears were new immigrants and hadn't yet found the food box.

Even in 1985, when extreme drought led to a record number of bear complaints around Minnesota, bears stayed out of trouble in the study site, where they were able to get food from the box.

Bears generally fear people, Rogers said, and would prefer not to take the risk of getting too close.

"The basic thing about bears — it's so simple but usually ignored — is that what bears do and what bears eat depends on what the alternatives are," Rogers said. "In years of high [food] abundance, you don't have problems. What drives bears to be a nuisance is not being habituated or food-conditioned, but hunger that depends on what's available in the woods."

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Black bears like to eat a range of foods, including berries, ant and hornet larvae, and some greens, which are generally prevalent in normal years. But hunger can drive bears to travel further distances to find food, often leading them to homes and campgrounds. Along the way, they are at risk of getting hit by cars or shot by frightened people.

But lack of rain isn't the only factor that can send bears on a long-distance search for food. Flooding, early frost, and a rise in human development can also make the animals hungrier than usual.

A changing world, in other words, is bringing bears and people ever closer together.

"We're at this point," Hampton said, "with 5.2 million people in Colorado and 16,000 to 18,000 black bears, where we're just going to have more conflict."