When local businesswoman Michelle Levine stopped her vehicle on Mulberry Street in Fort Collins, Colorado on July 9, 2014, she thought she was watching a large black dog cross the street in front of her car. She noticed something odd about its exceptionally large size and rolling gait and at the same time she realized she was staring at a small black bear.
"The first thing I noticed was how comfortable the bear was with its surroundings," she explained in an interview shortly after the incident. "I noticed the many people in the area working in their gardens or walking their dogs and the bear strolled past everyone as if it lived in the neighborhood."
Levine moved her vehicle to the side of the road and called the Fort Collins Police Department then the Colorado Parks and Wildlife. She decided to wait for authorities to arrive to make certain everyone saw the bear. She called out to a man walking his two dogs down the street and warned him to turn around.
"If he was ten feet closer his dogs would have attacked," Levine explained. "I know my old dog would be terrified, but she would sense the danger and I would not be able to stop her from trying to protect me."
Levine watched the bear climb a fence and sit in a nearby backyard. She knocked on the door to warn the occupants, but no one answered and when the bear started to move again she returned to her car.
Another man started walking behind the bear clapping his hands to try to encourage the bear to stay in one place, but he didn't seem to notice he was guiding the bear toward a man gardening in his front yard. Levine shouted to the gardener and he ran inside. When the Colorado Parks and Wildlife arrived a short time later Levine left, but when she drove near Peterson and Olive streets a short time later she noticed the animal was sitting in a cage and did not appear to be sedated.
Levine said she was deeply saddened to learn that the animal was later euthanized, but the one thing that stood out the most to her through the entire ordeal was how comfortable the animal was with its surroundings. "It literally looked as if it were out for an afternoon stroll," she said.
Jennifer Churchill is the spokesperson for the Colorado Parks and Wildlife NE division, was also concerned by how comfortable the bear was with its surroundings. Although it is not her job as spokesperson to determine when an animal is euthanized, it is emotionally painful for her to take the calls from the media and explain why a strong, young bear would be put to death.
Michelle Levine, who also travels to nearby Estes Park, Colorado for her work, often sees bears walking on the side of the highway, but they always run when they see her car, she said. She has more encounters with elk in Estes Park, a situation that also makes the Colorado Parks and Wildlife as large herds often enter the city to graze on the golf course, but there is little to compare between the dangers of elk and bear encounters.
“My territory is reaches from Wyoming to the Continental Divide, Kansas to South Park and Albert County,” Churchill said. “In the seven years I have worked as spokesperson for this territory I’ve had to discuss perhaps four or five injuries to humans by elk encounters, and 27 injuries to humans by bears.”
"When bears are comfortable hanging out in backyards and alleys it becomes a public safety issue," Churchill explained. "This yearling was from a family of three bears that were originally found at the National Center of Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado on May 12, 2014. The sow was vomiting and unresponsive. The two yearling bears were approximately 70 pounds each and seemed capable of caring for themselves. They took off when Colorado Parks and Wildlife arrived. The sow at NCAR was euthanized by my officer after being sick and unresponsive for several hours." A necropsy performed on the sow revealed latex gloves, cellophane and antifreeze in her stomach.
The two yearlings both reappeared within city limits by the end of the month. On May 21, 2014, one of the males returned to Loveland where it was euthanized. The second yearling was found in Broomfield, relocated to Pennock Pass then made its reappearance in Fort Collins.
"Relocation rarely works unless the bear is looking for a new habitat," Churchill said, "but we all seem to be in agreement that we should try to give the animals a chance. Unfortunately, these yearlings were trained by their mother to seek food within city limits. As soon as we released them they made a beeline right back to the cities."
“Bears are walking stomachs,” Churchill continued. “Everyone who lives near bears should be careful about leaving out bird feeders, pet food, and especially trash, which should be in bear-resistant containers. Bears need a shocking number of calories to survive. In the fall, a bear requires 20,000 calories a day to live, and bird food has a surprisingly large amount of calories.”
Last year, there was four bears euthanized or shot within the city limits of Boulder, Colorado and the City Council passed an ordinance requiring bear-resistant trash containers for anyone who lives west of Broadway Avenue in the center of town. Residents who do not use bear-resistant trash containers are fined.
“There is no such thing as a bear-proof trash container, but it’s a start,” Churchill said, and right now it’s the best she can hope for. Educating and encouraging members of the local communities to take action to protect their homes and families from wild animals is an increasingly important part of Churchill’s job as homeowners continue to encroach on the habitat of these animals.
Colorado has struggled for the past few years with wildfires and floods that also destroyed food sources for many of these wild animals, increasing the chance that residents may have dangerous encounters with bears, coyotes, and wolves. These same animals are presenting problems in other states and residents are trying many controversial approaches, such as New Mexico’s coyote shoots and the ongoing issues involved in declaring wolves an endangered species. Churchill hopes that her continued efforts to educate residents on how to avoid these encounters may help the residents in her territory.
“The issue of how to handle bears who enter city limits is a hot issue right now,” Churchill explained. “Sometimes residents respond angrily when they hear that a bear has died, but often these same people are surprisingly laze when it comes to bear-proofing their homes. If you have ten families on a block and nine of them cooperate with careful bear-proofing the bears will still find that tenth home and make return trips in search of food.”
“I wish I could say that people are understanding and cooperative on days like this when an animal is euthanized,” she said. “What I can tell you is that it is the most painful part of our jobs with the Colorado Parks and Wildlife.” Churchill said employees try everything they can to discourage the return of the bears, including sometimes shooting them in the fanny with buckshot, to no avail.
Churchill suspects the problem with animal encounters will only grow worse as we continue to encroach on their territories and food supplies grow scarce, but the Colorado Parks and Wildlife does offer a wide variety of suggestions on how to reduce the chances of wild animal encounters in your home and even includes suggestions on how to safely attract birds. Information is available on their website at cpw.state.co.us under the “learn” section.
“The bottom line,” Churchill said, “is that the wildlife in the United States belongs to all of the citizens of the United States and we owe it to these animals to protect them, even if we are protecting them from themselves.”