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Earth Notes

Earth Notes: The Coexistence Of Humans And Bears

Melissa Sevigny/KNAU

Everybody has a bear story in Durango, Colorado. Nearly three-quarters of residents there report at least one encounter with a black bear. They’re known to knock over trash cans, eat out of bird feeders and chow down on dog food. And these bear-human interactions are increasing.


A research team led by Heather Johnson, a wildlife ecologist with the US Geological Survey, put GPS collars on dozens of black bears in the Durango area. They discovered that the animals venture into city limits when their natural food sources disappear. A drought or a hard late frost can drive them to seek out human and pet food. Warming temperatures mean shorter hibernation periods, so more time for hungry bears to encounter people. Contrary to popular opinion, bears don’t prefer eating McDonald’s leftovers out of trash cans. They usually revert back to wild berries and acorns when their natural foods become abundant again.

Johnson’s study also found that bear populations decline when they spend more time near houses and roads.  They’re hit by cars or removed by wildlife managers if they become too aggressive. Luckily, there’s one very simple thing people can do to lessen these encounters: lock up trash. Neighborhoods in Durango that received free bear-proof trash containers had far fewer confrontations with bears compared to those with ordinary trash cans.

Bear stories aren’t always negative or scary. A brush with a wild bear can inspire a sense of connection to nature. Many Durango residents say they want their local bear population to remain healthy and stable, a hopeful sign that coexistence is possible.