Mountain lion sightings seem like they are becoming as common as bumper stickers in Boulder County.
There’s no doubt contact between humans and the big cats can have serious consequences for both parties. But there was a far more rare, far more imposing sighting in the wilds of Colorado in September, the consequences of which could be far-reaching and monumental.
A pair of hunters reported seeing a grizzly bear near Independence Pass on Sept. 20. The Colorado Division of Wildlife deemed the hunters credible witnesses because of their extensive experience and knowledge of the difference between a black bear and a grizzly.
The DOW found no signs of grizzlies after a foot and helicopter search was suspended last week. But even the possibility that one of the continent’s largest predators has returned to Colorado has the wilderness community buzzing.
“Just the presence of one grizzly would have an effect in a big way. It would be huge,” says Marc Bekoff, a biology professor at the University of Colorado. “They are so powerful and I have to say it would certainly make a big change in the ecosystem.”
The DOW suspended the search for the grizzlies because winter weather was approaching. Bekoff said it would be difficult to find signs of the grizzlies now anyway because there is not enough snow or mud to hold a reliable track.
“We probably won’t know anything until spring,” DOW spokesman Tyler Baskfield told the Associated Press.
Brown bears, aka grizzlies, are an endangered species and extremely rare south of Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park. The last sighting in Colorado was in 1979 and the animals have long been thought to be extinct in the state. The last confirmed kill of a grizzly in Colorado was in the late 1950s. Experts have theorized that if the bears are in Colorado, they would be located in the south San Juan Mountains, one of the most remote areas in the state.
The recent sighting near Aspen included a female bear and two cubs, which means the bears’ presence could grow in Colorado if the species can reproduce here.
“We are hopeful but skeptical about the sighting, and we hope that the Division of Wildlife is doing everything in their power to protect the species from accidental shooting, as it is the black bear season at the moment,” says Wendy Keefover-Ring, a carnivore specialist with Sinapu, a Boulder conservation nonprofit dedicated to large carnivores. . “Especially if it’s a female with cubs. Grizzly bears provision for their cubs for three years. They are dependent upon their mothers for their survival.”
There are no hunting licenses that cover grizzlies in Colorado. A main distinction between grizzlies and more common black bears is a hump between the grizzlies’ shoulders. Grizzlies usually are much larger than black bears. They can grow to eight feet tall and weigh 800 pounds. Black bears typically weigh from 125 to 500 pounds.
The grizzly sighting comes two years after a gray wolf was found dead on the side of I-70 near Idaho Springs. Wolves also were thought to be extinct in Colorado. The dead wolf was identified by a radio collar as one “from the Swan Lake pack in the northwest corner of Yellowstone National Park,” according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report.
There have not been any further confirmed wolf sightings, and as human development has continued to encroach further into Colorado’s wilderness, further resurgence in predatory animals such as the grizzly and wolf may be hampered.
That hasn’t stopped outdoor enthusiasts from imagining what the state would be like if there were grizzlies here. Winter will make more sightings difficult, but if a few have migrated south from Montana and Wyoming, it’s possible that more will follow.
“If a grizzly is here, then others can come,” Bekoff says. “It’s such a rare event, but if it’s true that means there’s a corridor that would allow them to come.”
By Zak Brown,
Boulder Daily Camera
October 9, 2006