'The mountains have always been here, and in them, the bears.'
— Rick Bass, The Lost Grizzlies
A late August vacation to the San Luis Valley hot springs brought the issues of bears and people into sharp focus. This day a bear was getting into the unprotected trash bins and robbing a few careless campers of their people food. The bear was there because she was hungry. She was there because the trash was not protected against bears. She had been relocated and needed her own territory. And she was beautiful — deep, dark brown with a lighter brown mask. She was minding her own business with a cub in tow. Not threatening, but bold; she was simply being a bear.
She was an urban bear, "raised" by the residents of Colorado Springs and was five successful years old. Her crime? She climbed a tree with her two cubs. Perhaps she was spooked by a car or a passerby. Perhaps it was a good tree to keep two cubs safe in. Too bad she was spotted. She wasn't a trash bear. She wasn't a trouble bear. She was just a mama bear in the city that climbed the wrong tree, deemed too close to Cheyenne Road. For her tree-climbing crime, she was trapped, along with her two cubs, and relocated to Starvation Creek in Saguache County. It was Aug. 3, 2011.
Starvation Creek is a beautiful and peaceful area in the Pike and San Isabel National Forests. Local legend has it that the creek got its name when an early fall blizzard trapped a local rancher's cattle. When the cowhands finally got through, they found all of the cattle frozen and starved in the deep snow. The area is enfolded by heavy timber and waterways. Bears already live there.
Plopped into another bear's territory and not knowing where food sources were, where the berries grow, or where the safe places were, she was challenged to survive with two cubs to feed and protect. She needed to find a place of her own. So she traveled, out of the wilderness into the San Luis Valley. Mama bear traveled many miles with her cub, discovering the hot springs. The second cub's fate remains a mystery ... killed by other bears, shot by people, hit by a car? Her cubs were certainly put at a disadvantage by relocation.
The hot springs staff called the Colorado Division of Wildlife to their rescue. DOW must respond. They don't like killing bears and have a tremendous job of educating people how to be bear-smart. Colorado is a two-strike state for bears. This bear became a dead bear walking with that call.
Her remaining cub, inexperienced, went into the tempting trap. He was hungry. Later in the day the cub was moved to a bear rehabilitator's site. With the cub gone, the DOW turned to dealing with the mother. She ran down the waterway toward the valley floor. We watched through the oak trees as she ran for her life. A beautiful sight; a beautiful animal. We felt deeply for her.
Of course, she returned. With the DOW there, excitement ramped up again. She checked the trap, having the smell of her cub, but avoided tripping it. Her cub was surely around somewhere. Hot springs visitors were herded up on the hillside and we heard the crack of the rifle. They shot the bear! The day was Aug. 31, just 28 days from climbing that tree in Colorado Springs. It was an unjust, unfair ending for a good mama bear.
Why did this bear have to die? Bears are keystone species for Colorado ecosystems and living, breathing denizens of the planet. Bears have jobs to do for Mother Nature. Wild animals can be inconvenient, especially since people now occupy so much of their habitats. Is that a reason to eliminate them?
We owe it to the natural world to control ourselves. Those who don't wash out their recycle; those who put food wastes into the trash and those who put their trash out on non-trash days need to reconsider what they do from a bear's standpoint. There are those who insist on feeding bears, as if they were helping. They are fooling themselves. These people play a role in encouraging bears to raid trash bins and lose their innate fear of people. Thoughtlessly, these people play a big role in causing the death of many bears.
According to the Division of Wildlife, as of August 2011, Custer, Pueblo, Huerfano and Las Animas counties have lost approximately 40 bears and, in the Pikes Peak region, we have lost 18. Not all were trash bears or people-fed bears, but all were lost to the ecosystem and lost to us. The future for bears is not bright, unless we humans act in their defense. Next time you see a bear ... ignore it, give it lots of space and let it be a bear.
Freelance writer Becky Elder, a former wildlife rehabilitator for the state of Colorado, is a permaculture designer, environmental consultant and organic gardener for Blue Planet Earthscapes.