Black Bear Hunting

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Drought has been tough on black bears this year, but will make it easier for hunters to locate hungry bruins.

Jerry Apker, resident bear expert for the Colorado Division of Wildlife in Monte Vista, points out that bears become more mobile whenever there are food shortages and "mobile bears are vulnerable." That should make bear hunting "very good" this fall, Apker says.

Bears are vegetarians in spring and summer for the most part, following green forage into the mountains as soon as the snow melts. This year the forage situation was terrible, says Apker. Many of the forbs and grasses that sustain bears during the summer months dried up at lower elevations, pushing the bears ever higher.

In early August "bear triggers" go off, alerting them to pack on winter fat. They begin feeding up to 22 hours a day, seeking as many high-energy food sources as possible. That's when bears drop down to lower elevations to feast on serviceberries, chokecherries and acorns. When those are gone, they leave their traditional territory and travel many miles in search of alternative food sources.

Most bear sightings occur in Colorado when acorns are scarce. Invariably, bears wandering about in search of alternative food find it in someone's garbage can, bee-hive or bird feeder.

Seasonal monsoons may partially alleviate the drought in the central and northern mountains. With enough rain, bears in those regions should have plenty of acorns and cherries for their fall feeding frenzy. But Gambel's oak has produced virtually no acorns in south central and southwestern Colorado, regions that have the highest density of bears.

"Fall forage in the state's best bear habitat is a bust," says Apker, "meaning we're going to have a lot of hungry bears roaming about. That's good news for hunters, but bad news for people who don't like bears in their back yards."

Hunters should be aware that some campgrounds in the San Juan and Rio Grande national forests require people to store all food, garbage, pet food and bird feed in approved bear-proof containers or in a bear-resistant manner such as in a car trunk, hard-sided vehicle or camper.

The bear population in Colorado is now estimated at 10,000 to 12,000 bears, and has remained stable and healthy despite the recent succession of summer droughts.

Last year, 2,603 hunters who drew tags for the limited September rifle season killed 322 bears for a 12 percent success rate. Another 10,420 hunters bought unlimited archery, muzzleloader or rifle bear licenses for use during elk or deer seasons. They killed 423 bears - only a 4 percent success rate - but most of them were not specifically hunting bears; they simply came across them while after other species.

A new regulation for 2002 requires successful hunters to personally present their bears to an officer or office of the Division of Wildlife for inspection and sealing within five working days after the kill. Bear hides must be unfrozen when presented for inspection, a check report must be completed and the seal must remain attached to the hide until tanned.

Black bears cannot be taken out of Colorado until the hides and skulls are inspected and sealed. A bear hide without a seal may be confiscated by the Division and becomes state property.