Living with Bears

This information was compiled with the cooperation of the Colorado Parks and Wildlife. For more information, contact the local Wildlife Officer at 970-945-7228, or the Pitkin County Community Response Officer at 970-920-5300.

Part of the natural beauty of Pitkin County lies in the National Forests that surround us. Because our homes and our recreational activities are near these wilderness areas, there is a good possibility that we will encounter bears. This page will give you some basic information on bears' habits, how homeowners can discourage bears, and how backcountry travelers can co-exist with bears.

The Bear Facts

  • In Colorado, there are about 8,000 to 12,000 black bears, the only type of bear known to exist now in our state. "Black" is something of a misnomer, as 75% are really brown. They may also be honey-colored, blond, or cinnamon-colored (leading some people to believe they are grizzlies). The highest point of a black bear on "all fours" is the middle of his back. There is no prominent shoulder hump as there is on the larger grizzly bear.
  • Depending on food supply and gender, black bears may weigh between 125 and 275 pounds. Just prior to winter, they can weigh 100 pounds more than they normally do.
  • In spite of their immense size, a bear can squeeze his body through any hole he can get his head into because, unlike human shoulders, a bear's are flexible.
  • In the wild, bears live to be about 20 years old. "Home range" for males is generally 180 to 200 square miles, for females, generally 10 to 75 miles.
  • Young bears have long, lanky limbs, muzzles that appear too large for their faces, and ears that appear large and very far apart for the size of their heads.
  • In the wild, bears' diets are about 90% vegetation -- grasses, leaves, nuts, and berries. Of the 10% that is meat, some is deer, elk, rabbits, and livestock, but most of it consists of insects such as ants, beetles, and larvae.
  • When he is on "all fours", a Black bear is about 3 feet high; when he stands upright, he can be 4 or 5 feet tall. It is a myth that a bear standing upright is getting ready to attack. If a bear attacks -- which is seldom -- he does so from "all fours". When a bear stands upright, he is usually trying to get a better view or sniffing for food.
  • During the late summer and early fall, bears feed as much as 20 hours a day to gain weight to carry them through their long winter hibernation. Often, they'll eat as much as 20,000 calories per day to prepare for the 5-1/2 months they will not eat, drink, urinate, or defecate.
  • Bears will feed the way they were taught by their mother when they were cubs. If the mother was accustomed to meals from trash cans, the cubs will perpetuate another generation of "trash feeders".
  • All bears have 5 toes. The hind footprint looks a lot like a human footprint, about 7 inches long. The front foot is shorter, about 4 to 5 inches wide.

Homeowners Can Discourage Bears

Bears are opportunistic feeders. If they find a Thanksgiving dinner outside your house, they'll be back! If they don't find enough food where you live, they'll move on to easier pickings.

  • Use covered bear-proof garbage cans. Call the Division of Wildlife for suggestions on where to purchase them. Store the cans in a shed or enclosed chain link fence with a top. Disinfect garbage cans regularly with a chlorine bleach.
  • Do not feed domestic or farm animals outside. If you have a beehive, you will need to construct a bear-proof fence.
  • Clean your barbecue grill of grease and store it inside.
  • Hang bird-feeders away from your house (not on your deck), and bring the feeders in at night.
  • Don't put fruit, melon rinds or other tasty items in your compost piles.

Campers Can Co-Exist with Bears

Encounters with bears rarely result in attacks, but every situation is different. Try to avoid surprising a bear. Talk or make noise, keep your children close to you, and leave your dog at home (or at least have it on a short leash). Minimize your chances of meeting a bear by avoiding hiking at dawn or dusk, and use extra caution in places where a bear's hearing or visibility is limited -- where a trail rounds a bend or in areas of dense brush. If you do come face-to-face with a bear:

  • Stay calm. Walk away, speak softly and try not to show fear (easy for us to say!).
  • Stop. Give the bear an escape route. Do not make direct eye contact with the bear as he may perceive this as a threat.
  • Step off the trail on the downhill side and slowly leave the area.
  • Although it is not common for a mother with cubs to attack, it is a possibility. Move away slowly from the cub. The mother may make alarming gestures such as kicking dirt, snorting, popping her jaws, or making a "false charge" (stopping short before reaching you). However, if a bear does attack you, fight back. Black bears have been driven away when people have fought back with rocks, sticks, binoculars, and even their bare hands.
  • Contrary to popular myths, bears can run fast (up to 35 mph), and can easily outrun a person up or downhill. They are also agile tree-climbers.

Common Sense Precautions

A few common sense precautions can minimize your chances that a bear will enter your campsite. A rule of thumb: don't attract bears with enticing odors! A bear's sense of smell is about 100 times as sensitive as a person's.

  • Keep your camp clean. Store the clothes you wore while you were cooking with your food. Burn grease off grills and camp stoves. Store your food in coolers in your car trunk or suspended from a tree, at least 10 feet from the ground and 6 feet out from the tree trunk. Dispose of garbage in bear-proof garbage cans, or pack it out with you. Don't bury or burn garbage as bears will smell it and dig it up.
  • Store toiletries (shampoos, toothpaste) with your food. Don't wear perfume or after-shave. Practice good hygiene and abstain from sex in the outdoors.