Tips to help you connect your family to nature!
This healthy bear has been in a feeding frenzy called hyperphacia, storing up fat to get through the long winter ahead (photo credit: Shuttertock.com\Brett Welcher)
Fall is a beautiful time of year to get outside—trees are starting to change colors and there is a pleasant bite in the air, a welcome change from the warm summer temperatures. With fall comes preparation for winter such as cleaning up the yard and garden, and stockpiling wood for the fireplace or wood stove.
Animals are also preparing for winter, and educating the public about being ‘Bear Aware’ is a focus this time of year for the United States Forest Service, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service. Fall is an especially important time to be cautious around bears as they are entering a biologically driven phase called hyperphagia.
Hyperphagia is the name given to the drive in bears that increases their feeding activity. This builds up the fat reserves necessary to get them through five to seven months of hibernation. Black bears, the only bear species in Colorado, eat as much as 20,000 calories a day during this time, sometimes foraging for 20 hours a day! Eating and drinking non-stop, bears rely on fruits, berries, acorns, and insects to satiate their appetite during this hyperphagia phase. They are opportunistic feeders and will also raid garbage cans, local honey producers, and orchards in more populated areas if given the chance.
Bear encounters in Colorado can be opportunities to observe them, with caution. What do we need to do to keep ourselves and the bears safe during this time of year? Some things you can do at your home for bear safety are to make sure your garbage is in a bear resistant garbage can or dumpster, and bring bird feeders in at night. If camping, make sure all food and garbage is in a bear canister or airtight container and locked in your trunk, or hung from a tree away from your tent, car, or camper. Always lock your car or camper when you leave your campsite and at night; bears are very smart, and have been known to open door latches! Once a bear associates people with food, they become what is known as a nuisance bear and may have to be relocated, or if they are involved in repeated human-bear encounters they may have to be put down by Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials. If they come into your yard or camp, yell, bang pots, blow a whistle, or honk your car horn to chase them away – and always make sure they have a clear escape route.
While hiking in bear country, it is a good idea to wear a bear bell on your pack or talk to your hiking partner while on the trail. These noises will usually let the bear know you are there, and they will move away on their own before you even see them. Be alert, keep your dog on a leash, and pick a camp spot away from signs of bear activity such as bear scat or overturned and shredded logs. An unleashed dog can bring an irritated bear directly back to you, increasing the chance of an unwanted bear encounter. It is a good idea to carry a can of bear spray, and know how to use it.
If you see a bear while hiking, experts say the first thing to do is to stay calm, face the bear, stand your ground, and talk to the bear in a calm voice to let them know you are human. Say things like, “Hey bear,” and make sure the bear has an escape route, stepping downhill off the trail if necessary and backing away slowly. Never run or climb a tree! If you see cubs, you should leave the area immediately as the mother will be close by—never approach a bear or bear cubs! If the bear stands up, they are trying to identify you by seeing and smelling you. Wave your arms slowly over your head. If the bear huffs, stomps, or pops its jaw, they want more space. Keep backing away slowly until you can’t see it anymore.
If the bear approaches you, it could be food-conditioned, or rarely, an aggressive bear. Stand your ground, keep backing away, and yell or throw small rocks towards the bear. Now is the time you will want to get your bear spray out, but do not use it until the bear is about 40 feet away. If the worst-case scenario occurs and the bear attacks, fight back with everything you’ve got – a pocket knife, hiking poles, or even your bare hands. People have successfully fought off a black bear by convincing them that they are not worth the trouble. Keep in mind that this scenario is extremely rare.
If you see a bear in the distance, enjoy the sight and count yourself lucky to have seen such a beautiful animal. Don’t try to get closer—just enjoy this rare moment and move on to enjoy the rest of your day. Know that you are in bear country and be Bear Aware! More information can be found on the internet by searching “Be Bear Aware” or “Bearwise”.
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