Colorado is a haven for outdoor adventures of all kinds, with plenty of trails and backcountry spaces for everyone to enjoy. It’s always good to know what you’re getting into before stepping out on the trail, and we have the answer to some of your top concerns. Are there bears in Colorado? If so, what kind? What do I do if I come across a bear on the trail? This guide has everything you need to know about bears in Colorado and more.
First off, yes, there are bears in Colorado. The only species currently found in Colorado, and the species most often seen in the United States, is the black bear (Ursus americanus). While their official name is the North American black bear, the name is misleading. You may come across bears with fur ranging from light brown to fully black, but they’re all considered black bears.
Black bears are found throughout Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, at mid to lower altitudes where food is still available.
Grizzly bears used to be found in Colorado’s San Juan mountains. While they historically had a smaller range than black bears, grizzly bears have been removed by human interaction or become locally extinct in Colorado since 1951.
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Black Bears in Colorado
Black bears living in Colorado have short tails and short claws that don’t retract. Their ears are round and their eyes are small compared to other bear species. While you won’t see a black bear and a grizzly bear at the same time in Colorado, one of the biggest differences between the species is the shape of their face. Black bears have a straight facial profile from nose to forehead while grizzly bears have a dish-shaped profile.
Black bear fur ranges from black to brown and even blond, with medium brown and cinnamon being the most common colors of black bears to see in Colorado. Their skin is light gray and their eyes in adults are brown and in cubs are blue.
On average, male black bears are larger than female black bears. Males have an average weight of 275 pounds or 125 kilograms and females have an average weight of 175 pounds or 80 kilograms. Size ultimately depends on food availability and black bears are smaller on average in areas where food is scarce. Adult black bears average 6 feet or 2 meters long from nose to tail, and 2 to 3 feet or about a meter tall at the shoulder when standing on all four feet.
Life Cycle of Black Bears
Black bears can live up to 30 years in the wild, but it’s more common for wild black bears to live about 20 years. In Colorado, black bears are active from mid-March through early November and spend the winter hibernating in dens.
Black bears are mostly solitary except for mothers with cubs. It’s unusual to see multiple adults together outside of peak mating season. In Colorado, the black bear’s mating season peaks in May and June, with delayed implantation of the embryo until closer to hibernation in the early fall. This delay allows an assessment of the female’s body to ensure there is enough energy in reserve to support the embryo until birth in the winter.
Generally, females give birth to two to three cubs every other year. Cubs are born in January and February and stay with their mother for about a year and a half. Adult females will give birth every two years on average in order to raise the previous cubs. However, when food sources are scarce, females will have cubs less frequently.
Diet of Black Bears
Colorado’s black bears are omnivores, meaning they eat both plants and animals. Grasses, berries, fruits, nuts, and plants account for about 90% of the black bear’s diet, with the other 10% composed of insects and scavenged carcasses.
Black bears adjust feeding patterns with the seasons. In summer they eat mostly leaves, flowers, and insects. In the fall black bears eat more fruits and nuts. Adult black bears eat 20,000 calories a day during late summer and early fall in order to prepare for hibernation. These fruits and nuts are higher in carbohydrates and fat, providing the nutrients needed to store for hibernation.
Habitat and Range of Black Bears in Colorado
Black bears are found throughout Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, at mid and lower altitudes where food is still available. Black bears move to lower altitudes in the fall to find fruits and nuts more easily. Overall, black bears prefer forested areas with plenty of vegetation, fruit, and nuts.
Black bears in Colorado may have a home range of 20 to 200 miles or 32 to 320 kilometers throughout the year in order to take advantage of the best food sources. Black bears have a strong sense of smell and are able to recall the location of preferred food sources once they find it. Bears can travel 15 miles or 24 kilometers in a day in search of food, and have been known to migrate up to 30 miles or 48 kilometers to find the best fruit.
Primary Predators of Black Bears
Humans, mountain lions, and other bears are the only predators of black bears in Colorado.
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Are Bears Migrating From States Bordering Colorado?
Since black bears can have wide home ranges, it’s difficult to provide specific data on individual bears migrating from other states to Colorado. It’s likely bears found in the Rocky Mountains near Colorado’s borders cross over state lines throughout the year in order to find the best food and other resources available. However, there isn’t current data to suggest black bears are permanently migrating to Colorado from bordering states.
Bear Management History in Colorado
Bear management in Colorado followed a similar path to the management of predator species throughout the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As settlement increased, predator populations were actively reduced and even eliminated to remove the perceived threat to people and livestock. As national sentiments towards preserving natural environments changed, so did management practices.
One of the earliest recorded interactions with bears in Colorado was in Middle Park in 1863. Articles from the 1870s encouraged Colorado’s new settlers to hunt black bears on their land. As ranching grew in Colorado in the twentieth century, bear populations were reduced as they were perceived to be threats to wildlife. In 1915, federal agents reduced the number of black bears in Rocky Mountain National Park in order to increase the elk population. In 1941, the governor of Colorado allowed bears and other predators to be killed without a license and out of season if they were perceived to be causing damage to wildlife or property. US Forest Service reports in the 1940s recorded combined black bear and brown bear populations throughout the state to be just under 5,000 individuals.
Views on hunting and the preservation of native species changed throughout the 1960s and 1970s, following the national environmental movement. Intentional removal of bears was reduced to the individual level, encouraging people to live alongside wildlife and intentionally removing individual bears that became food-conditioned and aggressive. Bear populations were allowed to rebound in order to reestablish the historical ecosystem.
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Bear Populations in Colorado National Parks and Wilderness Areas
Many of Colorado’s national parks, state parks, and wilderness areas are prime bear habitats. As many of these parks were created to protect unique mountain habitats and provide recreation opportunities, these locations in the Rocky Mountains overlap with prime spaces for bears throughout the year. However, it’s difficult to know exactly how many bears are found in Colorado’s protected lands. Bears have large ranges that change throughout the year to take advantage of the best resources. They’re also mostly solitary, so tracking populations as a whole is challenging. Current populations of black bears throughout the state are estimated to be between 8,000 and 12,000, ranging throughout Colorado’s Rocky Mountain regions.
Even without knowing exactly how many bears are in the national or state park you’re visiting, it’s good practice to be bear aware while out and about. Best practices for potential bear encounters are outlined below.
Bear Hunting Regulations in Colorado
Bear hunting in Colorado began in 1935 as an active method to monitor and manage black bear populations throughout the state. Currently rifle, archery, and black powder hunting are allowed during bear season.
Bear hunting season runs from the first week of September to the second week of November. Hunting licenses are required to participate in Colorado’s bear season, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife requires all black bears killed by hunters to be presented to wildlife officials within five days. This allows wildlife biologists and game managers to gather data on current black bear populations.
Bear and Human Interactions
Black bears are curious but wary of unfamiliar things like people. Black bears have very acute senses and will likely hear, smell, or see you before you get too close. However, if you do come across a black bear, there are some key steps to take to ensure your safety.
What To Do If You Encounter A Black Bear?
Once bears find an easy food source, they come back for more. To avoid food-conditioning wild black bears, bear-proof containers should be used. This is especially important to keep in mind at campsites and other places humans and bears are more likely to come into contact. A black bear’s sense of smell is 100 times stronger than a human’s, and they can smell food up to five miles away.
Bear-proof containers will be available at most campsites in Colorado’s bear country. If you’re camping in the backcountry or the provided bear-proof containers are full, you should double-bag your food and trash and, if possible, bring your own fully sealed container to use as a bear-proof container.
Bear spray is a very concentrated pepper spray that is even more effective than firearms at deterring bears. It’s always a good idea to carry bear spray when hiking or camping in bear country.
Using bear spray is simple: remove the safety clip, aim slightly downward, and begin spraying when the bear is 30 to 60 feet or 10 to 20 yards away. Aim so the bear will have to pass through the spray to reach you. Continue spraying until the bear leaves, and if it continues to charge spray directly in the bear’s face. For more specific information, check the package your bear spray came in.
Intentional bear attacks on humans are uncommon in Colorado, but can happen. When it does, it’s most likely a female black bear protecting her cubs from a perceived threat or surprise in the form of a person too close.
If black bears become used to human presence they can become increasingly aggressive, especially if food sources like dumpsters and campsites are involved. In Colorado, like most of the United States, if a bear becomes used to human presence and becomes more aggressive it will be euthanized.
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Be bear aware
The best thing you can do before heading to bear country is learning to be bear aware. Colorado Parks and Wildlife has put together a guide to living with bears, which we’ve summarized here.
- Hike in groups, making noise to avoid sneaking up on bears. Carrying a safety whistle or bells is a good idea if you’re hiking alone to make more noise and alert any bears to your presence.
- If you’re hiking at dusk or dawn, be extra alert. Bears are more likely to be active and on the move during this time.
- As we discussed before, store food in bear-proof containers and carry bear spray.
Threats from Habitat Loss and Climate Change
Currently, black bear populations in Colorado are stable. Because bears are able to easily adapt to whatever food source is available, they’re less susceptible to climate change than other species.
However, black bear populations in Colorado can become less stable due to habitat loss. As towns grow and the typical range of people in Colorado increases, it could become more difficult for bears to live in spaces that aren’t interrupted by people.
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Cultural References of Black Bears
In Ute culture, bears are viewed to be the wisest animal and the second bravest. The Ute culture holds Bear Dances to strengthen their personal relationship with bears.
Black bears are significant to indigenous communities in Alaska, with bears with blonde and white fur having higher cultural importance.