CONIFER, Colo. – My name is Scott Murdoch and I am a District Wildlife Manager with Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW). I work in the Conifer area along U.S. Highway 285 in part of Park and Jefferson counties.
This article is the last in a series of articles that will highlight how wildlife is managed in Colorado. CPW is the state agency responsible for managing the wildlife that calls Colorado their home. Our agency employs aquatic and terrestrial biologists, researchers, property and hatchery technicians, administrators, wildlife officers, investigators, engineers and many others to accomplish the broad mission of conserving and protecting the state's 960 game and non-game species. More than 70 percent of CPW’s wildlife programs to conserve and protect those species are paid for by the license fees from hunters and anglers. CPW does not receive general tax dollars to fund its wildlife conservation programs. Each job within the agency is critical to accomplish the mission; the district wildlife manager/wildlife officer is one of those jobs that I would like to highlight.
CPW district wildlife mangers handled over 10,000 bear calls/complaints in 2019 and 2020. Fortunately, this year, with the spring rains and improved forage, bear calls are down. Over 865 mountain lion calls/complaints were received in 2020. When you consider that there are 131 district wildlife managers, it equates to a ton of time spent on bear and lion management. The bear calls/complaints usually involve bears in trash, bird feeders, killing livestock, car break-ins, dwelling/garage break-ins and attacks. The lion complaints usually involve sightings of lions in neighborhoods, lions killing deer or elk in backyards, killing livestock and attacks. As you can see, much of the conflicts revolve around the food that bears and lions seek out. So many of these conflicts can be prevented if the attractants are removed. Let’s look a little closer at some of the issues.
Bears are phenomenally smart and always hungry. It’s that combination that often gets them into trouble. Bears start the year emerging from hibernation looking to slowly restart their system. Bears will often start by eating the tender new vegetation emerging. As the season matures, the forest becomes abundant with young and helpless wildlife. Bears will feed on young wildlife like deer fawns and elk calves. This is often when we see an uptick in the number of livestock like sheep, calves, goats and chickens being killed. After the spring green-up, flowers bloom and depending on conditions, we start to get berries, fruit and nuts. Bears key in on ‘mast’ in the late summer and fall eventually returning to hibernation by mid- to late-November.
In a good year, natural forage is abundant and bears don’t get into artificial food sources like trash cans as much. Years when there is a food shortage, bears have to get creative and seek out any food that they can. A bear has to get 20,000 calories a day to gain enough fat to survive the winter. That is quite the task, so bears will only be found at the locations where food is most abundant. Oftentimes that means houses, alleyways and trash dumps are the most productive spots for them in terms of calories. These areas are also more risky to the bear. If the food is plenty, the reward outweighs the risk.
I talk about food for bears a lot, because if you remove the attractant you remove the bear issue. That bear cannot be, and won’t be in an area without food. It is really that simple. So why do we have such an issue with bears? Well it really is less of a bear problem and more of a people problem. The fact is people are not diligent at cleaning up attractants that lure bears. What seems innocent enough of leaving a trash can or humming bird feeder out overnight can escalate quickly into a bear that breaks into cars, homes and potentially injures a person. Now not every bear that gets into trash will attack someone, but every bear I know of that has attacked someone started out by getting into trash; trash left out by someone too lazy to care about the life of a bear.
Now you may think that CPW doesn’t value bears since we are often tasked with either relocating or euthanizing ‘problem’ bears. I can tell you personally that the act of killing a problem bear for its actions as a result of humans’ inability to live responsibly is one of the hardest parts of my job. I know it is the same sentiment felt by all other wildlife officers in this country. We didn’t get into this profession to kill bears, but often that is the result of peoples’ decisions. CPW is tasked with protecting the public as well as managing wildlife and when a bear learns these behaviors, that bear becomes a threat to public safety, even though the public created the issue. It is a tough and complex problem that will only be solved with the cooperation of the public.
CPW has two main issues when it comes to bear conflicts, people not calling about conflicts and people not listening to the advice of the CPW employees trying to solve the bear conflict. People often don’t call CPW about bear conflicts until it is too late to do anything about it. We need to be notified that trash is an issue before that bear learns to break into a house. Hopefully with a little cooperation and understanding, people will take a more proactive approach to reduce conflicts with bears.
Mountain lions often instill fear into many and the thought of one walking through your neighborhood may send chills down your spine. When sighed in a neighborhood or when a deer is killed by a lion in a backyard, we often get that nervous call. Talking the homeowner through the situation or responding in person will usually put that person at ease, especially if they learn something from that interaction.
It is pretty amazing how many mountain lions live in and amongst humans with little conflict. They generally don’t want to be around people, but will tolerate human presence if abundant food is present and they are hungry. We get most of our sightings in the wintertime when the snow makes them stick out more. Additionally, deer and elk become more concentrated at lower elevations, the predators following.
Reducing conflicts with mountain lions is generally easy. Refraining from illegally feeding wildlife on your property will go a long way in keeping the predators from setting up shop. Securing any livestock, particularly at night, will keep livestock safe. Thinning out your property, and removing hiding areas for predators will also keep your property less attractive to a big cat.
While mountain lion attacks are exceedingly rare - only 25 in Colorado since 1990 - if you do see a mountain lion, stay calm. Hold your ground or back away slowly. Face the lion and stand upright. Do not approach a lion. Do not run from a lion, that may stimulate a mountain lion's instinct to chase. Stand tall and face the animal. Make eye contact. If you have small children with you, pick them up if possible so they don't panic and run. If you are attacked, fight back. These simple rules will help keep you safe.
So the next time you see wildlife, know that your local district wildlife manager is looking after the wildlife that you so cherish. If you would like to meet your local district wildlife manager, please come with questions and share coffee with us on Sunday, Aug. 29 at the following locations and times:
Evergreen: 9-10 a.m. at The Bagelry: 1242 Bergen Pkwy Ste 3
Bailey: 9-10 a.m. at Mudslingers: 144 Bulldogger Rd.
Fairplay: 9-10 a.m. at The Java Moose: 730 Main St.
If you have any general wildlife questions, please call our Northeast region office at 303-291-7227.
Poaching is a crime against you, your neighbor and everyone else in the state of Colorado. Call 1-877-COLO-OGT toll-free or Verizon cell phone users can simply dial #OGT to report it. If you'd prefer, you can e-mail us at [email protected]
~Scott Murdoch, Colorado Parks & Wildlife