The dogs were barking bloody murder.
Not that the peacocks were doing much better. In their coop, not a single tail feather remained unruffled under the autumn moonlight. But it was the goats that needed to be vigilant. For the lumbering black shape had returned to their pen for a third time that fall.
In the white-and-brown farmhouse, the lights flickered on. Armed with a flashlight and dressed in a bathrobe, Margaret Isenhart, 68, headed out to the farmyard to see what all the commotion was about.
It wasn’t long before she found Frosty. The barely breathing, five-year-old boar-and-dairy-cross was missing half of her shoulder blade. Around her, the other goats ran wild.
Isenhart called on her upstairs renter for help moving the injured goat and herding the others back into their stall. Then she went inside to call the vet. When she returned, her renter was standing in the pasture, focusing his flashlight’s beam at a spot some 40 feet away.
“I saw a bear.”
Margaret Isenhart pushes her goats into her goathouse in Boulder, Colo. on a late October evening. A rogue bear attacked and killed two of her goats, Tweedle-Dee and Frosty, that fall, while a third, She-Devil, seemingly died of fright.
It’s a mid-October evening when I first meet Margaret at her farm on 75th Street in Boulder, Colo. Up and down the roadway, homemade signs advertise U-Pick pumpkins, and miniature jack-o-lanterns decorate fence posts leading up to the gravel driveway of Isenhart’s home—a gingerbread crumb trail for bears.
Margaret greets me in a wide-brim hat that shades her eyes from the blinding harvest sun. The bear trap, she says, is out back near the goats.
As we cross the property, passing towering sunflowers and tipped terracotta planters, Margaret asks if I can smell honey. She wonders if there isn’t a bees nest stuck up in an old rafter somewhere. It wouldn’t surprise me. From the pumpkins out front to the unsecured bins of animal feed resting against the side of the goat house, the farm isn’t short on bear attractants.
Just outside the wire fence boundary of the goat pasture, bordering large swaths of farmland, sits the trap—a small, barred cage loaded onto what resembles a red wagon. It seems too small for a bear said to have killed one of Isenhart’s goats from sheer fright alone, and to have mauled a second and third goat, Tweedle-Dee and Frosty, to death shortly thereafter.
“Colorado Parks and Wildlife baited it with marshmallows, maple syrup, and apples,” Margaret says. “I guess that’s standard fare.” She shrugs.
Her remaining goats mill around their pen, nuzzling each other. After the three incidents, they refused to venture out of their house for two days—even when Margaret sprinkled grain on the pasture.
“They were traumatized. There was the smell of death.”
She casts a skeptical eye to the trap.
“I don’t think they’re going to catch him,” she says decisively, noting a “marshmallow fairy” emptied the trap several nights in a row, but evaded capture.
And anyways, marshmallows, she says, will no longer satisfy this bear.
“Once it’s done this; once it’s tasted blood, it will never go back.”
Next time, she’ll be ready with her shotgun.
Barely 5’0” with a sun-lined face, Margaret’s eyes are watchful, her tongue sharp, and her love for her animals runs deep. She’s rid her farm of skunks and raccoons, sinkholes and coyotes, and even serpents in the chicken coop. But a bear? Well, that’s new.
“I’ve lived here for 47 years, since 1968, and we’ve never had problems,” she says, leaning atop a wheelbarrow filled with parcels of soil. “I just don’t know why this bear turned rogue. It’s not typical of a black bear to take out livestock around here.”
"Once it's done this; once it's tasted blood, it will never go back."
Margaret Isenhart has lived at her farm off 75th and Arapahoe for 47 years and says she's never had any issues with bears before. "I keep thinking this is a sign I need to sell the place. But I'm not going to. Not yet."
The reality is urban bears are anything but typical. Over the past 50 years, humans have ceaselessly expanded into the wildland-urban interface—the zone where untamed wilderness meets ski chalets and summer homes—and black bears have altered their behavior in response. Opportunistic foragers by nature, bears have struggled to control themselves around a steady supply of trash, and climatic variation has only exacerbated the issue. Ongoing drought in the Rocky Mountain West has sparked berry crop failures and raging megafire.
Now, human-bear conflict is on the rise.
According to a 2011 study by renowned bear biologist Stephen Herrero, 85 percent of fatal black bear attacks have occurred since 1960. The strongest correlation was clear—increases in human population, with more people living, playing, and working in wildland areas.
In Colorado, wildlife officials euthanized 529 problem bears between 2009 and 2013, compared to only 173 bears in the five years prior. Bear harvest numbers are climbing, too. The last four years saw more bears killed by hunters than in any year since 1993. In 2014, more than 1,300 bears were removed from the state’s population of 17,000.
Indeed, it wasn’t long before the warm months of 2014 became known as the Summer of the Bear.
At the townsite of Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada, wardens responded to an unprecedented number of wildlife incidents. In Aspen, Colo., an off-duty police officer was attacked by a trash-munching bear in a downtown alleyway. And by August, the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District had closed all campgrounds around Crater Lake in the Maroon Bells Wilderness due to increased aggression from bears attracted to campers’ unsecured food.
2015 isn’t looking much better. As California enters its fourth year of drought, residents around Lake Tahoe are bracing for a bear invasion. Already, natural berry crops have failed and the iconic freshwater lake remains one of the few sources of water in the region. As if that weren’t enough, tensions have boiled over between bear activists and wildlife management agencies, resulting in alleged death threats and lawsuits.
Wildlife managers are struggling to determine where exactly the problem lies. Are conflicts the mere result of recent changes in bear population trends or are they due to ursine behavioral shifts in response to human food sources? Bear populations are notoriously hard to estimate, due to their transient nature; a 2014 study concluded there were twice as many black bears in the state of Colorado as previously thought.
In 2010, Colorado Parks and Wildlife launched a multi-year study in Durango, Colo., to determine the influence of urban environments on bear habitat-use patterns and demography and test management strategies for reducing bear-human conflict. Because, despite managers’ best efforts, conflicts are increasing in number and severity, even with aversive conditioning programs, modifications of harvest, and education.
As bulldozers forge onward into the wild and the West dries up, a singular question emerges—one that could have profound implications for global bear management and conservation—will bears and humans ever be able to coexist when the rules of the game keep changing?
BLACK BEARS BY THE NUMBERS
New Mexico: 6,000
A mother bear watches the crowd gathered below her tree at 7th and Pleasant Ave. in Boulder, Colo. on September 24, 2014.
Scott Harvey never shows up to his shift without a whistle.
It’s practical, he says, since he never knows where he’ll be when he gets the call. Heavy things like pots and pans he’ll borrow from neighbors when he arrives at the scene.
Harvey is one of Boulder’s “bearsitters,” a group of Open Space and Mountain Parks volunteers who watch over the local bear population when they wander too far into the city. Using blinking lights, bells and whistles, and pots and pans, their goal is to keep bears confined to one tree throughout the day so they can safely return to the mountains at night without disturbing residents, and vice versa.
Today, Harvey has been assigned to a mama bear with two cubs in a tree across from Flatirons Elementary School in Boulder’s University Hill neighborhood.
Through the leaves, I can just make out the broad face of the mother some 20 feet off the ground. One of her cubs rests atop her black back.
Below, behind a fence, curious children and neighbors with point-and-shoot cameras try to catch a glimpse of the visiting bruin. Most seem more excited than afraid, but that hasn’t stopped urban bears from being euthanized in the past.
And the bears’ chosen resting place has everyone on edge.
“I’m very nervous, if this is the same family as last week,” says Harvey, still dressed in the khaki-colored uniform he wears for his day job as the University of Colorado’s pest specialist.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife rules require previously relocated bears to be destroyed should they return to risky locations. Most call this the “two-strike policy.” If this family is relocated to the foothills, only to return to town, there’s a good chance they’ll be killed due to their proximity to the school.
In fall 2013, three previously relocated bears were euthanized by CPW. Two were large male bears who would nap in the tall oak trees that overshadowed Columbia Cemetery following a trash binge.
Standing at the corner of 7th Ave. and Pleasant, it’s not hard to see where the problem lies. The cemetery backs onto the elementary school which lies against the foothills of the Front Range. Meanwhile, alleyways filled with fragrant, rotting food criss-cross the neighborhood. It’s like an all-you-can-eat buffet for hungry bears.
Up in the tree, the bears begin to stir, long tongues lolling out of their mouths in the September heat. The sun is quickly sinking, and a nearly tangible sense of relief has fallen over the crowd. It will be dark soon.
But Harvey still worries about the bears’ fate.
“Luckily she’s keeping them up here for now, but tonight she could be somewhere else. She could get hit by a car.”
For the past 15 years, Harvey has spent his springs and falls watching over Boulder’s bears—a change of pace from his daily life where he deals with rats and cockroaches. During that time, one bear in particular has stuck in his mind.
“The big bear they shot last year in Columbia Cemetery was the biggest bear I’d ever seen,” he recalls. “I’d babysat him the year before and one night he took down a six-foot wooden fence like the posts were a bunch of toothpicks just by leaning on it.”
The bear returned to Boulder after having been moved to Wyoming. By then it weighed 590 pounds, so it didn’t take long for the bear to force the elementary school into a lockdown. The children heard the deadly gunshot ring out.
“Some of the officers will call me when they know I’ve worked on a bear,” Harvey says, pausing in contemplation. “They’ll let me know what happened to it. It’s bittersweet.”
Many of Boulder's bears spend their days consuming trash in the alleyways that border Chautauqua Park and then fall asleep in nearby Columbia Cemetery. But in 2013 the cemetery proved a dangerous place to rest—two bears were euthanized there due to the cemetery's close proximity to Flatirons Elementary School.
A map showing communities with bear-resistant bin ordinances across western North America. Red markers denote ordinances at the city level; purple markers denote ordinances at the county level; blue markers denote newly implemented ordinances; yellow markers denote changing ordinances; green markers denote hot spots without ordinances.
Located along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, Boulder, Colorado, is a university town often noted, and satirized, for the free-spirited, if not entitled, hippies, athletes, and entrepreneurs that call it home. Boulderites pride themselves on green living—they drive Priuses and bike to work; they eat locally-grown food; and they’re ahead of the nation when it comes to things like energy muncipalization and fracking moratoriums.
But some say it took the city far too long to recognize they had a bear problem.
For nearly a decade, conservation advocates tried to get the local city council to implement an ordinance that would require bear-resistant trash cans at homes that bordered the wildland. They got so far as a pilot project before council backed off.
But Brenda Lee, founder of the Boulder Bear Coalition, continued to champion the issue until the destruction of the three bears in fall 2013 finally got the public, and city council, to take notice.
The following January, Boulder City Council passed an ordinance that would require all homes west of Broadway—which divides the city’s center from the neighborhoods that border the mountains—to use retrofitted, plastic bear-resistant containers. Those who don’t can be fined up to $1,000 depending on the number of violations they’ve had.
At a population of 100,000, Boulder is one of the largest cities to create such an ordinance to date. Most of the western communities with legislation relating to bear-resistant containers are tourist towns deep in the mountains. But more and more, highly urbanized areas, like Reno and Colorado Springs, are seeing an influx of black bears.
In the spring of 2015 I caught up with Valerie Matheson, Boulder’s urban wildlife coordinator, to check in on how the first season of the ordinance went.
The results? More than 245 violations after only two months. But no fines. And no bears destroyed.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t bears in town though, says Matheson from her fourth-floor downtown office overlooking Boulder’s iconic snow-covered Flatirons. In the distance dark roofs poke up from the pine forest canopy. There were still more than a dozen bears in town last year on a regular basis, but they weren’t getting into trash.
Matheson is hesitant to chock up the lack of euthanizations to the ordinance alone.
“For one thing, because of the euthanizations [in 2013], we didn’t start off the season with habituated bears,” she notes, adding that in the early spring, another town bear was euthanized after consuming antifreeze, and a cub drowned in a backyard pool. Two Boulder cubs relocated to Fort Collins and Loveland were also destroyed by wildlife officials.
But the ordinance helped. The alleyways of University Hill remained relatively free of strewn trash, and fewer bears appeared to be spending the night. Bears may very well be on their way to kicking their trash addictions. And moving onto other food sources.
“Our next thing is to tackle the apple trees,” says Matheson. “As trash is less available, other attractants might become more important.”
It doesn’t help that North Boulder used to be an apple orchard; or that eco-obsessed Boulderites have a penchant for community gardens and curbside composting.
Ultimately, such issues are at the very heart of human-bear conflict issues—solve one problem and you create another.
And if Boulder, one of the most environmentally conscious places in the United States, is struggling to solve its bear problem, what hope is there for the rest of the West?
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