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Tracking Durango's Bears

State wildlife researcher Heather Johnson talks to KSUT about multi-year study of bruins and their behavior.


There's a picture of Heather Johnson on the internet. She's a little scuffed up, smiling a bit, and holding up the head of a sedated black bear.

Johnson, a researcher with Colorado Parks & Wildlife, is heading up a six-year study of bear behavior and bear and human interactions around Durango. The study is in its fourth year.

Johnson joined us in the KSUT studios recently to talk about some of the takeaways of the study.

She says about 400 bears are being tracked with GPS locators for the study.

The data gleaned has given Johnson and other scientists insight into how a shortage of food affects bear populations. A 'food failure year,' as they're known, occurred in 2012, in the middle of the study, and decreased bear numbers significantly.

The study is tracking bears in Durango, and within a six-mile radius from town. It doesn't include the La Plata Peaks or Missionary Ridge, unless a bear tagged near Durango wanders that way.

But, according to Johnson, the study also shows some bears are coming down from the La Platas in the fall, to forage just before hibernation.

She also says it was a surprise to learn of the occasional wanderlust of black bears.

Most of the bears tracked by Johnson stay in the study area, save for some wanderings into the La Platas or up Hermosa Creek. But one sow, fitted with a GPS collar in the Edgemont area east of Durango, decided to head south to New Mexico.

She returned to Edgemont, cubs in tow, a year-and-a-half later.

Johnson also describes the process of trapping and tagging bears, and how winter maintenance of the GPS tracking units means some brave researcher gets dropped by rope into the den of a semi-hibernating bruin.

Click here to learn more about the Colorado Parks & Wildlife study Black Bear Use of Urban Environments: Testing Management Solutions and Assessing Population Effects.

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