Colorado is home to Ursus americanus - the American black bear. The last verified grizzly bear was shot 40 years ago, and they are widely believed to be extirpated from the state. Adult black bears average 200-250lbs in weight, and despite their name they can be brown or even blonde. Bears have a fearsome reputation with a lot of people, but in reality black bears in their natural habitat are usually quite weary of people. As most of you know, I solo hike through the back country all the time. I've seen countless paw prints and claw marks in trees, but I've seen bears up close a handful of times. In most cases, they either didn't know or care that I was there (because they didn't react), and the rest of the time they moved on. Here's some old footage of mine showing a black bear on the other side of a stream.
Black bears are omnivores, but much of their typical diet consists of grasses, roots, insects and berries. While they have been known to hunt, they tend to eat carrion if the opportunity arises. If you're lucky enough to see one in the wild, enjoy the experience! My most popular video shows the moment a black bear is released into the wild. Note how reluctant it is to be around humans!
What to do in bear country
The rules for bears are much the same as for other wildlife:
Keep dogs leashed and children close.
Keep a respectful distance. Many large mammals can act aggressively as a fear response.
If you bump into a bear on the trail, make conversation-level noise to alert him or her to your presence and slowly leave.
Never feed (intentionally or accidentally) a bear. Wild bears can lose their natural fear around humans if an association with food is made.
If you're still uncomfortable, or are camping, consider carrying bear spray. It's very effective in the unlikely event that a confrontation occurs.
Living in bear country
Colorado is bear country. Bears like their natural food sources, but can be attracted to human foods. Once again, never feed (intentionally or accidentally) a bear. In towns, this means securing/bear-proofing trash, pet food, bird feeders, garage freezers, and of course house doors and windows.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife can offer more advice on these topics. In Lake City, I help to run Friends of the Bears - a non-profit organization dedicated to reducing human/wildlife conflict. In most cases, it's just a question of education. Most people are more than willing to do the right thing to keep wildlife and their neighbors safe.
Some have assumed that bear/human conflict is the result of bear population growth (rather than uneducated or lazy humans), but a recent study has shown that "...researchers concluded that increasing bear-human conflicts do not mean the bear population is growing but that bears are adapting to take advantage of urban expansion. This will compel a rethinking of Colorado’s current approach of boosting bear hunting based on the number of conflicts reported in an area. If bears aren’t multiplying, heavy hunting could hurt the species."
The creators of a new documentary on this subject are currently seeking funding on Kickstarter. According to their page, "Bears of Durango is a short documentary film project that dives headfirst into bear dens with a team of wildlife researchers studying the effects of human development on bear behavior and bear population trends." Lake City Friends of the Bears will contribute to this worthwhile project and hopes to use the film for educational presentations.
Bears, like mountain lions, coyotes and moose, are part of what makes wilderness wild. If we respect (rather than fear) them, it's quite possible to coexist.