Bear licenses on the rise

It’s not a good time to be a black bear in Western Colorado.

After years of seeing bear populations grow and hearing a chorus of complaints from hunters, livestock growers and farmers, Colorado Parks and Wildlife is set to reverse that growth. This spring, it approved a statewide increase in black bear licenses — with the largest increase occurring in the eight units of the Grand Mesa bear management area.

From 480 licenses in 2012 to 1,000 licenses in 2013, the inflation continues a trend in which the number of Grand Mesa bear licenses has tripled during the past three years.

“Just in the Northwest region, our licenses have gone from 4,737 in 2008 to 11,705 in 2013,” says Ron Velarde, co-manager of Parks and Wildlife Northwest Region. That’s more than were offered in the entire state in 2003, when 11,254 licenses were available.

This fall, 21,167 licenses are available statewide, 20 percent more than last year. The high number is because of a higher estimate of the bear population after several years of research, as well as the general failure of hunters to harvest bears.

Last year, hunters harvested 1,172 bears and another 630 were killed in non-hunter deaths, including roadkills, livestock growers protecting their flocks and other causes. State carnivore manager Jerry Apker currently puts the state’s bear population at around 16,000 to 18,000 animals.

“We’ve been very conservative in our bear management and consequently the bear population has grown,” Apker says. “This year we’ve doubled the number of licenses, which vastly exceed the demand, but when you use license numbers (to control populations), it takes hunters a while to respond.”

While elk hunters plug along at around a 21 to 24 percent success rate each year, for bear hunters it’s 9 to 11 percent — even with no shortage of quarry.

“As part of changing our bear management plan we wanted to suppress the bear population on Grand Mesa to the point where the adult sow harvest was driving the population,” says JT Romatzke, Parks and Wildlife Area 7 manager. He adds that adult sows are the hardest to kill because they don’t move around as much.

By monitoring the take of adult sows, biologists can follow population trends. When fewer sows are taken, the population is larger; when more sows are harvested, the reproductive side of the population is affected. Currently about 40 percent of the annual harvest is adult sows.

“When the harvest of sows grows, we know we’re starting to move the population down,” Romatzke says. “If we can get sows to 50 percent of the harvest, we’ll probably start to pull back on license numbers.”

While game damage issues and concerns about human conflicts drove the license decisions, bear conflicts are less in Area 7 than in other bear-rich areas such as the Roaring Fork Valley.

“Last year was a good food year for bears and we only had a couple of places where there were conflicts,” says Romatzke, citing Battlement Mesa and Rifle as hot spots for bear conflicts. “Our challenge comes not so much from the human element as what Mother Nature gives us.”

There also are bears setting up house in the cornfields around Mack and Loma. “They probably came down here came in 1997 or 2002 when we had (natural) food shortages and discovered a good food source,” Romatzke adds. “They started denning and having cubs and now their cubs are learning that habit. This isn’t an appropriate place for them and we don’t want them here.”