Bears, in feeding frenzy, kill chickens and 4-H pigs

Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2018 10:51 PM
Colorado Parks and Wildlife says bear activity in La Plata County is starting to pick up as bears seek to pack on the pounds before hibernation.

After a relatively quiet start to summer, bear activity in La Plata County is picking up.

Matt Thorpe, wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said that’s likely because bears are entering “hyperphagia” – a voracious feeding period when bears eat as many calories as they can before hibernation.

Last week, a bear in western La Plata County got into a chicken coop that did not have electric fencing and killed most of the chickens. The next night, the surviving chickens were brought into the resident’s home, but that didn’t stop the bear from looking for seconds.

“The bear ripped into the side of the house to get to the chickens,” Thorpe said. “It was a pretty determined bear.”

A trap was set, but the bear seems to have disappeared, Thorpe said.

CPW also set a trap for a 2-year-old bear that broke into several houses in the Durango Hills area about 15 miles east of Durango. One home was even broken into twice, Thorpe said. That bear, too, has not been caught.

And, last week in Archuleta County near Allison, a bear killed and ate three 4-H pigs that were set to compete in the fair the next day. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services euthanized the bear, he said.

“That one was kind of a heart-breaker,” Thorpe said.

So far this year in La Plata County, seven bears have been euthanized.

A sow and two yearlings were euthanized in May after breaking into homes near SkyRidge subdivision. The bears had become accustomed to easy access to human sources of food, such as unsecured trash and bird feeders.

A yearling was euthanized in early June after breaking into multiple camp trailers near Bayfield, Thorpe said. Later that month, a bear was put down after breaking into homes in western La Plata County.

A mama bear and three cubs were trapped after breaking into homes in the Rafter J subdivision west of Durango. The mama bear was euthanized. In this instance, however, the three cubs were able to be rehabilitated, Thorpe said.

And in July, another bear was euthanized for breaking into homes near Bayfield.

CPW does not take euthanizing bears lightly, Thorpe said, but wildlife managers are forced to take action on bears that become conditioned to human sources of food and lose their natural fear of people, posing a public safety risk.

Last year was one of the worst years on record for bear euthanizations in Southwest Colorado. In La Plata County alone, 36 bears were put down for going after unsecured trash, livestock and bird feeders, among other unwanted behavior.

While the issue was driven largely by food sources made available by humans, wildlife managers chalk up the especially bad year in 2017 to a poor natural food cycle as a result of a late frost in June, wiping out acorns and berries.

Even though Southwest Colorado has been in an extreme drought this year, the natural food cycle is promising, and as a result, bear activity, so far, has been quiet, Thorpe said.

“We’re just really fortunate for the most part,” he said.

But Thorpe is concerned bears will come into town during the frenzied eating months before hibernation for easy food sources made available by humans, despite the abundant natural foods.

“We’re keeping our fingers crossed,” he said.

Bryan Peterson, director of Bear Smart Durango, said the fact that bears are going for easy-to-access human-food sources amid an abundant natural food year is a significant indicator the area hasn’t done enough to manage attractants.

“We’ve got a lot of bears well trained on using human foods,” he said.

Peterson said bears can quickly get the same amount of calories in two bird feeders that it takes them all day to get naturally foraging chokecherries.

“Bears aren’t stupid,” he said. “They’ll take the easy way.”

Bear Smart Durango, for the first time ever, will have a booth at the La Plata County Fair to educate residents about human-bear conflicts.

“We still have a lot to do in terms of managing attractants,” he said. “And we’re going to pay a price until we get that squared away.”

Steve Barkley, the city of Durango’s code enforcement officer, said bear activity in city limits was “quiet all the way up till Friday.”

Over the weekend, the city received about six calls of bears getting into unsecured trash. City code says if a bear gets into a non-wildlife-resistant trash can, there must be an automatic upgrade to a wildlife-resistant container along with a $100 delivery fee.

Barkley placed five orders Monday morning.

“I’ve been waiting for them (bears) to hit, and this weekend they started hitting,” Barkley said.

The biggest problem, he said, is residents who leave their trash out the night before pickup, which is in violation of city code. This weekend, bears got into trash on Jenkins Ranch Road, Crestview Drive and Delwood Avenue.

La Plata County Animal Protection Director Travis Woehrel did not return calls seeking comment. Animal Control was given the authority this year to enforce the county’s trash laws aimed at reducing human-bear conflicts.