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Close encounters with the bear kind

The very places that attract visitors and newcomers for their proximity to wildlife grapple with a spike in bear-human incidents.


At the height of the tourist season at Rocky Mountain National Park in 2018, a plump black bear ambled into the lobby of the nearby Stanley Hotel. It climbed onto a large, cherry wood table, examined an antique couch, gave it a deliberate sniff and then sauntered back out the door it had come in.

Estes Park, Colorado, the gateway community to Rocky Mountain National Park, has what most would consider a problem. Overzealous bears regularly wander into unexpected and inappropriate human places: the warmly lit kitchens of residents, inviting alleyway garbage cans; they commonly thrash their way into tourist vehicles to investigate a scent.

As the population of Colorado’s Front Range swells, visitation to Rocky Mountain National Park, too, has spiked. That’s only meant more encounters with wildlife and increased reports of “problem” bears that have become highly accustomed to humans and consistently rummage for scraps.

But it’s the very possibility of encountering these animals that encourages so many people to move to places like Estes Park and to visit its surrounding wildish areas. As much as our proximity to wildlife confounds our natural resource managers, it continues to delight a great many humans.

In recent years, Colorado Parks and Wildlife managers have worked with the city of Estes Park to adopt practices to better cohabitate with our non-human neighbors. In 2015, the town passed a wildlife ordinance that’s lessened a hungry bear’s access to its greatest temptation: trash. Residents must use either a wild-resistant container or put trashcans outside only on pickup days. Beyond efforts among the residential streets, the city also replaced all of the public trash containers in 2016. And though it was an expensive project, a whopping $1,200 for each individual canister, the community pitched in through an innovative sponsorship program.

The city continues to educate newcomers and visitors through a regular “Bear Booth” at the weekly farmer’s market, and provides tip sheets for behavior to keep wildlife safe that are enclosed in city utility bills and newsletters. Residents are advised that all bird feeders must be suspended and out of reach of a clawing bear. Police department volunteer auxiliary officers help patrol garbage cans and dumpsters with weekly driving rounds and provide information to rule-breakers.

While the town has made progress, there are still challenges ahead. More people visited the area during the 2018 season — more than 4.5 million people — than ever before, a trend that is expected to continue, and many tourists are unaware of safe wildlife interaction practices. It’s also an ongoing challenge for wildlife managers and town officials to police the many new small-scale vacation rentals that pop up.

And while chubby black bears awkwardly navigating the ever-intruding human world are undeniably endearing —wildlife encounters frequently go viral online, after all —the best advice wildlife managers offer is painstaking simple: Ignore them and let them be wild.

Paige Blankenbuehler is an assistant editor for High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor