Researcher: lean summer means tough winter for bear cubs

Posted: Thursday, September 21, 2000

DENVER (AP) -- Half of the black bear cubs will not make it through hibernation this winter because they didn't get enough to eat and don't have the built-up fat of adult bears, Colorado's top bear researcher said.

State Division of Wildlife biologist Tom Beck said the food shortage in some parts of the state also means stressed females won't have as many young next spring.

And Beck said this summer's nuisance bear problems are likely to be next year's problems too. He said the record 131 bears killed by law enforcement and others this year underscores the need to take steps to discourage bears from staying around people.

A late freeze and then a drought destroyed a lot of the bears' food in some parts of the state. That sent some bears scurrying for food among people. Other bears were tempted by garbage cans, pet food left outside and dirty barbecue grills.

Wildlife officers relocate a bear the first time it crosses people's paths. The second time, the bear is shot.

''I don't think most people want us to get to point where we have no bear problems because there are none left,'' Wildlife Division spokesman Todd Malmsbury said. ''But people are going to have to make fundamental changes in the way they live.

''Otherwise we will continue to have problems and there will be growing pressure to dramatically reduce or eliminate bear populations in some areas,'' he said.

A recent move by Pitkin County to require new subdivisions to install bear-proof garbage bins is a step in the right direction, he said. Summit County and other mountain communities have similar rules.

As for the plight of this summer's hungry bears, ''You can't save every animal from Mother Nature,'' said Mark Lamb, a district wildlife manager.

Colorado's large bear population is in no danger at all, Beck said. Food shortages have affected bears in only a few parts of the state.

But since the problem areas, including the Front Range and the Colorado River Basin, are the most populated, the problems seem magnified.

This year has been good to bears south of the San Juan mountains because of a bumper crop of berries and acorns, Beck said.

Beck said even in problem areas, most adult bears, which carry a little residual fat from previous years, likely will come out of hibernation. In a normal year, no cubs die while in their dens. But this year, only half may survive.

And next year's crop of cubs will plummet as pregnant females reabsorb their undeveloped embryos because of an instinct that they cannot support them.

Beck said this natural population control will ''reset the clock'' on a lot of breeding-age females, which breed every three years. Females who forgo birthing this year will be ready to breed again next year.

''It puts all these females back in synchrony, so if we get a good food year in 2001, man, we'll have a pile of cubs in 2002,'' he said.

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