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Black bears finding slim pickings in the Rocky Mountains

Wildfires, drought have made food sources scarce

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DENVER — It's summertime, but the living hasn't been easy for the black bears in the central and southern Rocky Mountains.

They should be eating 19 to 20 hours a day, stuffing themselves before their long winter nap.

Instead, wildfires, drought and heat have left them scrounging in Dumpsters and fruit orchards, breaking into homes looking for something to substitute for the berries and acorns on which they normally gorge themselves.

Farmers, ranchers and wildlife agents have had to kill 60 bears already this year in Colorado "and that number could top 100 before the year is out," said Todd Malmsbury of the state Division of Wildlife. That would be the highest toll since 1995.

Malmsbury said the increasing number of people living in former wildlife habitat, coupled with sloppy garbage handling, are major contributors to bear problems.

In Wyoming, hungry bears have been raiding cabins, camp trailers and trash receptacles from Cheyenne in the southeast to the Snowy Range west of Laramie, Wyo.

At least 14 black bears have been trapped and relocated after becoming a nuisance in some White Mountain communities in Arizona.

In New Mexico, bears have been reported in Santa Fe and Albuquerque. Five people, four Boy Scouts and an adult, suffered minor injuries in maulings at Philmont Scout Ranch near Cimarron, the first such attacks in the northern area since 1986. Firefighters had to drive off bears with rubber buckshot fired from shotguns in the southwest.

Fish and game officials said drought conditions in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests are driving the bears into northern Arizona neighborhoods in search of food.

Malmsbury said his agency is providing rubber buckshot to rural Colorado residents who show they are proficient with shotguns. He didn't hold out much hope that it would do much to alleviate the problem.

"Their skins are thick and it may not even be that much of a jolt to them," Malmsbury said.

Malmsbury and several other wildlife staff spent a day recently watching a sleepy bear in a back yard in Boulder. With as many as 25 people observing, the bear napped near a garden pool for several hours.

Though Boulder is in the foothills and includes some forested areas, this female "was smack dab in the middle of a residential area. It did have fruit and ornamental trees," Malmsbury said.

The bear, nicknamed Sparky by homeowners, "was only 10 feet from us. I think she had eaten all night and was tired. She'd get up from time to time, make a big mess, and then go back to sleep," said Mary Heidtman.

"Only once were we scared. A friend brought a grandson to look at the bear, and she raised up and hit the side of our deck with her paw. It sounded like someone fired a gun," Heidtman said.

Though Heidtman had often seen deer in her neighborhood, it was the first bear sighting.

Steve and Bates Solomon, who live near Aspen, got much more of a fright. They had left their door open because of the unusual heat, an error that could have been fatal, Malmsbury said.

They woke up to find a young skunk under their bed.

When they ran outside, they found an adult bear munching on a cantaloupe.

"There's a skunk 10 feet away under the bed. There's a bear 8 feet away eating cantaloupe. I was just frozen. There really was nothing I could do," Solomon said.