Like much of Montezuma County, Mesa Verde National Park has seen more than its share of encounters between bears and humans this summer, and its staff is recruiting volunteers to help.
According to a news release Friday from Mesa Verde public information officer Cristy Brown, several members of the park’s black bear population have been spotted rooting through dumpsters and unattended food near campsites and picnic tables. Like other recent bear sightings throughout the region, these are likely caused by a shortage of natural food sources due to a late frost, according to the release. To prevent conflicts between bears and humans, the park plans to start a volunteer bear safety education program in conjunction with the nonprofit Bear Smart Durango and other wildlife management agencies.
Brown said the program is new for the park this year.
“We want to make sure we’re working with local groups so that we’re all on the same page in how we respond, and in the information and education we put out to the public,” she said.
Park officials and members of Bear Smart plan to begin “volunteer outreach patrols” at Morefield Campground soon to educate campers on how to dispose of trash and store food so bears won’t go after it. Brown said the staff will also consult other national parks with large ursine populations, such as Yellowstone, to learn from their bear management practices.
Bear Smart sent out a newsletter on Thursday asking for more volunteers to help with the educational program in Mesa Verde. Those who sign up will be asked to talk to campers about bear safety during daily check-in and check-out times at Morefield Campground, and monitor camp sites during the day for unsecured food and trash. The newsletter promised volunteers would be “handsomely rewarded” for their efforts, with prizes including free entrance to the park, free camping, special tour vouchers and ride-alongs with biologists.
The nonprofit has organized bear safety education campaigns in the Durango area for about 14 years. La Plata County has also seen an unusually high number of bear-human conflicts this summer, including incidents where bears have broken into houses and cars, resulting in some of the animals being killed.
Although there have been no reports of injuries resulting from bear activity in the park, Brown wrote in the news release that too much contact between bears and humans can be bad for both species. She warned park visitors to keep their distance from bears.
“While it is a great experience to see a bear or other wildlife in the park, please do not stop your vehicle to take pictures of them,” she wrote. “If you spot a bear in the park, please alert the nearest ranger.”
National Park Service law enforcement and members of Mesa Verde’s wildlife management staff conduct regular patrols of Mesa Verde’s inhabited areas, especially Morefield Campground, to make sure campers aren’t leaving food or trash where bears can find it. They have also been hazing any bears they encounter in the hope of making them wary of humans again, the release said.
In addition to Bear Smart Durango, people interested in helping with the volunteer program can also sign up directly with the Mesa Verde park staff. Brown said no park or wildlife experience is required for volunteers.
“We’re just looking for people who want to ... educate people on how to keep wildlife wild,” she said.