How to safely deal with bears that will help both you and the bear

Apr 9, 2024 | Katherine Tomanek​ | Post INDEPENDENT
Bear rummages through an open dumpster in June 2021. Chelsea Self/Post Independent

Bears are starting to wake up and wander the mountains and forests looking for food after hibernating for the winter, and this can make them dangerous.

Daniela Kohl started the Roaring Fork Valley Bear Coalition in 2019. She’s been advocating for bears and knowledge about the animals for years.

“I care a lot about bears and I’m always looking at the latest state of the art technology for bear deterrence. I’m not just picking up a book, I’m researching every angle about it,” she said.

Kohl said the bears don’t live in our world; we live in theirs.

“When we live in bear country, we have to adapt to knowing we have bears around and go the extra mile to keep a clean home and to do anything you can to prevent human-bear conflict,” she said.

Bears are mostly looking for food, especially this time of year when they’re waking up from hibernation. However, it’s dangerous for bears to get too close to people and even worse to get comfortable around them.

“It makes bears lose their fear of humans,” Kohl said. “If a bear comes around more, people become comfortable with the bear, and there might be a food source. The bear gets bolder and that means if you get into his space, he could swat you or bluff-charge you. He might not want to hurt you but you might still get hurt.”

Bears that hurt people, even accidentally, are euthanized. This happened in Colorado Springs to a mother bear after she charged two boys who had gotten near her cubs. Although one boy ran into a tree branch, they were mostly unharmed. The two cubs were then captured and one was killed by the drug that reverses the tranquilizer given to them and the other cub was released in a remote mountain area.

“If a bear has been hanging around for a while, call your local wildlife officers and they’ll come and see if anything needs to be done,” Kohl said.

There are other precautions that can be taken, especially around food.

“They like to get into the bird feeders. The seeds are high caloric, full of protein, and it can become a hibernation style buffett,” Kohl said. Instead of bird feeders, she recommends bird nesting boxes and to keep any pet food inside.

She also recommends keeping dogs on their leashes while out walking, because the dog might pressure a bear to defend themselves, and keeping doors, windows and car doors locked.

Kohl also recommends getting bear resistant trash cans or Free Bear Straps for regular trash cans that help keep most wildlife out.

“There’s no such thing as bear-proof, only bear resistant,” she said.

Kohl said she makes sure to print fliers for Spanish speaking residents because they might not have the information they need about bears and how to safely deal with them.

“We help whoever we can, whoever needs it,” she said.

When meeting a bear, the Roaring Fork Valley Bear Coalition website recommends staying calm, speaking calmly, slowly backing away and not running away.

The National Park Service agrees with these, also listing out to pick up small children immediately and leaving the bear an escape route.

Most bears are solitary creatures and would like to be left alone. If it’s not possible to leave or take a detour, you can wait for the bear to move away. Sometimes bears will stand on their hind legs if they’re curious about you.

Don’t assume that bear cubs are alone – the mother can be up to two miles away from their cubs.

Bears, if they feel threatened, will make blowing noises, jaw-popping, huffing and human-like noises of distress or clack their teeth. They may also react by woofing, yawning, salivating, growling, snapping their jaws and laying their ears back. Bears might try to bluff out of an encounter by charging and turning away at the last second.

Black bears are the most common bears in Colorado, even if they’re not colored black – some black bears can be a light brown color, like cinnamon.

Black bears reach a top speed of around 30 mph and grizzlies get to about 35. They are this speed both up and downhill. The fastest a human was recorded to run was Usain Bolt at 27.33 mph. Most people can run 6-8 mph.

The black bears can climb 100 feet into a tree in 30 seconds, coming out to 3.33 feet per second.

Bears can also swim at about 6 mph. The fastest humans, like Olympians, can swim up to 5 mph. Average humans can swim 2-3 mph.

Do not race the bear in terms of land, water or air. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200, the bear will get there before you.

If you’re attacked by a black bear, do not play dead. Try to escape to a secure place, like a car or a building. If escape isn’t possible, try to fight back using anything that’s available. Concentrating your blows to the face and muzzle is helpful.

Acting safely around bears helps both the person and the bear, especially if there are cubs present. Other safety precautions are wearing bells to make more noise if traveling alone, traveling in a group or carrying bear pepper spray (different from normal pepper spray, make sure it’s specifically for bears), which can be used defensively.

“For us, we haven’t seen much action yet,” said Dan Roper, the Parks Superintendent from the Parks and Rec Department of Glenwood Springs said. “We don’t see much movement in town until later in the season.”

Roper said that they see more bears when the trees start to produce fruit and mostly they’ve sighted bears over in Veltus Park.

“We’ve seen bears in the perimeter open space areas, but nothing in town,” he said of the current bear season.

Kohl hopes that this food year for bears will be like last year’s.

“They had a good food year last year,” she said. “Hopefully they’ll stay out of the cities.”