With food scarce, bears invade cities

Fire and drought have hurt nut and berry crops, sending bruins into backyards.

Sand traps, deep rough, and early snowfall are all common impediments to the perfect round of golf in southern Montana. The occasional bull elk even wanders onto fairways. This autumn, though, duffers had to watch out for a new threat that could imperil more than their scorecard: bears.

Last month, a black bear scampered across the links at a suburban golf course here, and throughout the West, bruin sightings in cities have been on the increase. With drought and fire decimating this year's crop of wild nuts and berries, the animals are wandering through towns and into backyards, looking for food before they go into hibernation.

It appears the bears have gotten the worse of the human contact, as state wildlife officials and ranchers act to protect city dwellers and livestock. But, in scores of cases, the interaction has led to curious and sometimes humorous episodes, as well.

"Throughout the northern Rockies, when you look at the situation this summer with forest fires, those blazes were an expression of drought, and drought has also resulted in a poor natural food year for bears," says Kurt Alt, a bear expert with the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department. "More fires have meant more bears in town."

Trick or treat

Their favorite natural staples gone, bears have been feasting on bird seed in backyard feeders, garbage, barbecue sauce on outdoor grills, pet food, apples, and, in several instances, leftover Halloween pumpkins.

"We've had dozens of reports of bears entering homes and going straight for the pantries," says Todd Malmsbury, chief spokesman for the Colorado wildlife department. "One guy got bit when he reached for the door to his outhouse and found a black bear inside."

Sightings have become routine in Colorado from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs. In Golden, west of Denver, large groups of gawkers assembled many days last month to watch a black bear wandering through town.

"Everybody who could get over there and take the day off from work would gather to watch the bear stuff itself on apples and then have an afternoon nap in the trees," says Cameron Lewis of the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

Eventually, the bear finally just left town. But, many times bears aren't that fortunate. Colorado has a "two strike" policy: Bears that wander into urban areas are captured and turned loose once, but the second time - especially if they get used to human food - they can be killed.

By the numbers

During the entire span of the 20th century, only two people in Colorado have died from bear attacks and two others in fatal confrontations with mountain lions.

This year in Colorado, 200 black bears have died from nonhunting-related causes, several of them caused by ranchers pulling out guns to protect their sheep. One bear cub was accidentally killed here when a car ran into it on Main Street near one of the busiest intersections.

Wildlife managers have tried to employ "aversive conditioning" techniques, including shooting bears in the side with stinging rubber buckshot.

But it's people that game managers have to worry about. Some officials worry that too many people are building homes farther out in the woods.

"The same habitat that humans are selecting for condos in the foothills to the mountains is in the middle of a bear's home range," Mr. Malmsbury says. "I hear folks who claim they want to live closer to nature but many of them don't have a high tolerance for wildlife, especially the larger species. You can't have it both ways."

City sightings

Bears have been spotted daily in cities ranging from Phoenix to Salt Lake City to Boise, Idaho. In addition, almost every major city in the western half of Montana has reported a higher presence of bears than usual.

Yet perhaps the best bear sighting occurred on election day in Cross Village, Mich. There, a hungry, 400-pound black bear kept voters huddled inside their polling station afraid to leave.

So far, neither Republicans nor Democrats have cited the bruin as reason for a recount.

Meanwhile, back in Denver, Malmsbury remembers the story of one frantic newcomer who phoned the local game warden, startled that a black bear was roaming through her yard in the foothills.

"After the caller revealed her location, the game warden replied, "Gee, that's funny, I just got a call from a bear at the same address. He was complaining that some human just put up a trophy home in his front yard."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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