For natives and longtime Boulder residents, seeing a bear isn’t big news. But for those who relocate to Boulder from afar, encounters with large predatory mammals like bears and mountain lions may be a new experience.
The way these animals behave can vary depending on how habituated they are to humans. Both of these animals tend to shy away from people, but they will attack if they feel threatened. Understanding the behavior and language of these animals can be the difference between a close encounter and a conflict. With the onset of autumn, these animals will be looking for food more aggressively, that means venturing into town.
Wildlife encroachments have been frequent over the past month, according to Valerie Matheson, the urban wildlife coordinator for the City of Boulder.
“They are coming in, working the alleys and knocking over trash and getting an easy meal like a scavenger,” Matheson said.
The Colorado Division of Wildlife estimates that there are between three and seven thousand mountain lions currently living in Colorado, with only two attacks having resulted death. Mountain lions are elusive and tend to avoid human beings for the most part, but if cornered they can be dangerous.
Matheson says that although the majority of their time is spent far away from humans, mountain lions are opportunistic.
“I think these lions are spending most of their time, 80 percent or so, in natural areas and then are making a swoop through the urban areas for food or to see what they can get,” said Matheson.
The Colorado Department of Natural Resources suggests that people walk in groups, keep children nearby and make noise if hiking in mountain lion territory.
Matheson said that what the lions hunt for in town tends to be smaller, easier prey like racoons, cats and dogs. The city suggests that dogs should be on a leash and accompanied by their owners when outside after dusk, and that cats should stay inside at night. Matheson says that because of their secretive and elusive nature, most mountain lions come through town undetected.
Black Bears come into Boulder for food as well, but for a different dinner source: trash.
“They are trying to avoid people and pets in general as they are going through town,” Matehson said.
She said the city has introduced a pilot program including 523 homes in western Boulder to educate people about why bears come into town and how to discourage them. Solutions include bringing out trash to the curb in the morning instead of the night before.
“Trash has to be secured in a way that wildlife can’t get into it,” Matheson said. “The most challenging circumstance is alley pick up where folks don’t have a garage or a place indoors to store their trash. For that some folks freeze their meat and smelly trash until the morning of.”
Despite the name, black bears can also be brown or tan. Black bears are the only bear species Colorado residents are likely to encounter. Grizzly bears — which are more aggressive than black bears — once roamed our area, but are now a Colorado endangered species, and probably gone from the state entirely.
This past week saw two incidents with bears in town. The Boulder Daily Camera reported yet another urban bear standoff by Fairview High School. And the Boulder Stand reported a bear that had climbed a tree in Niwot and remained there for twelve hours.
Matheson said that encounters with bears tend to be from a safe distance in urban areas. But in the wild, bears can be more skittish around humans and will vocalize if threatened.
Nancy Glass is the program coordinator for the American Bear Association in Minnesota. She says that bears are misunderstood and that understanding bear behavior in the wild can prevent potentially dangerous encounters.
“The black bear is normally silent, but will communicate using grunts, blowing noises and clacking teeth,” Glass said. These vocalizations tend to be associated with apprehension in a bear rather than aggressiveness.
In the more wild areas, bears tend to run away from humans. Boulder native Mark Bowman was hunting in the western part of the state when he had an encounter with a mama bear and three cubs. He was in a meadow and noticed some deer looking spooked – when he looked to his left he saw the bears.
“The wind swirled and the mama bear went up on her back legs, sniffing around, and signaled vocally for the cubs to run for cover,” Bowman said.
Bears living near urban areas, however, are less fearful. Hikers setting out at dawn or dusk have a good change of running into a bear, as this is the time the bears are more active.
Connor Kobal hikes regularly in Boulder Mountain Park. He says he sees them here often but hasn’t ever had any confrontations. Early this September he approached a group of spectators on a trail observing a bear near the park’s entrance.
“I think it noticed me but there were a lot of people” Kobal said. “I was just walking down and then this guy who was looking at the bear was concerned my dog would make it run away.”
The City of Boulder offers a few guidelines when confronted by a bear or mountain lion. If a bear is startled while hiking on a trail or if a bear approaches a human, the human should make themselves look bigger than they are and shout in a commanding voice. Do not run as the bears will give chase and can run up to 35 miles per hour. Always give the animal an escape route. The same rules apply to mountain lions. If either a bear or mountain lion is aggressive and attacks, fight back. Throw sticks and rocks and speak in a firm voice to let the animal know you are human and not prey.
Last year the City of Boulder put together a 40-page proposal addressing the increasing concern of bear and mountain lion activity within the city limits. The objectives of that proposal involved greater public education regarding mountain lion and black bear behavior, as well as minimizing conflicts between humans and these large mammals. The measure was approved by the City Council last October.
The city is currently in the process of mapping bear and mountain lion sightings within and near the city limits. Call 303-441-3004 to report recent sightings.