From Pearl Street Mall to the Hill, Boulder has earned a reputation for its “wild life” of the human variety. But as wild as our people may be, our local animals are the real deal. Boulder’s landscape, where the plains rise to meet the foothills of the Rockies, supports a wide variety and abundance of wildlife. From eagles to rattlesnakes to mountain lions, we’ve got it all. And of all our local wildlife, perhaps the most high profile residents are our black bears.
Ask any Boulderite about bears and they’ll have a story for you. It may be a personal anecdote or a neighbor’s experience, but it seems that everyone has a tale to tell about these beautiful animals. Co-existing with bears is just par for the course here in Boulder. But how much do we really know about our favorite wild residents?
Black bears are the beautiful, and surprisingly gentle, giants of our wilderness. To be clear, all of Boulder’s bears are black bears, even though their coloration may vary. Grizzly bears, sometimes called brown bears, have not been seen in Colorado since the 1970s. Adult black bears range from 200-600 pounds and have an average life span of 20 years in the wild. They are omnivores who can and will eat almost anything, but the bulk of their diet consists of grasses, roots, berries, and insects.
Black bears can easily become habituated to eating trash, which is what has happened in Boulder in recent years. This is bad news for both people and bears. When bears dine regularly in our bins, trash is strewn about and neighborhoods become a health hazard. Bears accidentally ingest things that can make them ill. Sows (female bears) may birth more cubs than they, or the environment, can support. And, finally, bears hanging around densely populated neighborhoods can become “problem bears” that must be euthanized by wildlife officials due to Colorado’s two-strike policy. (Relocation is rarely successful, because bears will travel over a hundred miles to return to their original spot.)
In March 2014, the city adopted Ordinance No. 7962 requiring residents to secure their trash and compost in neighborhoods west of Broadway. The Boulder Bear Coalition, a group of local wildlife advocates, was key in bringing the issue to the public. Time will tell whether the new ordinance is being effectively enforced and to what extent it changes bear activity in town. The first season of implementation is off to a promising start. Brenda Lee, founder of the Boulder Bear Coalition, says, “There was a definite decrease in bears getting into trash. I do not recall hearing that the bears were venturing further east in search of trash once they found no access to it in the alleys close to the foothills. Also, we did not observe any aggressive behavior due to less trash being available.”
At the moment, our local bears are hibernating. Although black bears are not true hibernators, they enter a dormant phase during winter and typically do not awaken unless disturbed. Brenda says the bears had a pretty decent autumn leading up to that. “Compared to past years, they had lots of fruit. The apples throughout Boulder were more plentiful than they’ve been in 100 years, according to long-time local residents.” Kristin Cannon of Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) confirms this by adding, “Some of the bears’ riparian food (berry bushes along streams) was removed in the 2013 flood, but the overall crop was above average this year.”
How many bears do we have here in Boulder? Kristin says, “Estimating bear populations is extremely difficult. Researchers with CPW (and elsewhere) have been working to develop noninvasive techniques that are more accurate than current techniques, but they are not in wide practice yet.” CPW can verify that 16 different bears were reported in Boulder this past year. Six of the bears were cubs, four of which have since died. Kristin warns, “With bears, we can really impact the population by inflating it above the natural environment’s carrying capacity. When we feed bears, either intentionally or unintentionally, we cause bears to survive that normally would not and sows to have cubs in years when they normally would not. The more bears there are that cannot be sustained by the natural landscape, the more conflict we can expect.”
For wild Boulderites, living side-by-side with wild animals is part of the fun. It’s part of the beauty of our fair city. But it comes with the responsibility to ensure that our wild lives aren’t infringing upon theirs. In this pursuit, we are continually evolving and moving forward – one foot (or one paw) at a time.