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Colorado Researchers Venture Into Bear Dens

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(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

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Colorado researchers have been venturing into bear dens in recent months to understand why bears and people are crossing paths so often and why the animals’ hunt for food is becoming increasingly risky. A CBS4 crew was given a chance to see the research up close. A transcript of Stan Bush’s report lies below.

DURANGO, Colo. (CBS4) – In the mountains outside Durango Heather Johnson and her team go to extreme lengths to find bears.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife is tracking 40 bears, right into the bears’ dens. They fill syringes and dart guns with tranquilizers.

HEATHER JOHNSON: And we’ll get her jabbed and put to sleep as quickly as we can.

They whisper to keep the bears from waking up too quickly.

STAN BUSH: Are you a little nervous?

JOHNSON: Not nervous per say, but there is anticipation for sure.

To get there Johnson has to squeeze into a cave opening not much wider than a basketball.

JOHNSON: 104 for a heart rate.

JOHNSON: The neck is 59.

Inside, she performs what amounts to a routine physical, checking the bear’s temperature, weight and more.

JOHNSON: We get a hair sample both because we get really good follicles so we can get DNA that way. We can also use the hair to look at generally what they’ve been eating.

Researchers are doing this because bear confrontations are becoming a national problem. Colorado Parks and Wildlife says of the 41 states that have black bears, 30 report a rise in bear human conflicts.

PHOTO GALLERY: Images From CBS4′s Report Inside Bear Dens

“What we don’t know is if those conflicts are increasing because bears are changing their behavior or whether the bear population is increasing,” Johnson said.

JOHNSON: This is the fattest bear we’ve found all winter.

They are finding just how fragile the bear population is. It is affected by every day changes in the environment.

Last year’s drought conditions and low food have left researchers finding some of the thinnest bears they have ever seen. And now they wonder if those conditions have led to fewer bears being born this year.

“Last year looking at bears that we expected to have cubs about 70 percent of them did. So far this year we’re looking more like 15 to 20 percent,” Johnson said.

JOHNSON: We would have thought that this bear of any of them would have cubs, given her size.

Researchers don’t know if the lower number of cubs found is directly tied to the drought.

JOHNSON: This is an older bear …

They also wonder what effect human food is playing on the bear population.

(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

JOHNSON: 131 for Chester.

Thirty-two of their 40 bears spent most of last summer getting fat eating in town.

JOHNSON: Next we’re going to weigh her.

PARKS AND WILDLIFE EMPLOYEE: 233

JOHNSON: 233! She put on over 100 extra pounds.

Last year a nationwide drought brought an early wake up call for bears. From the Tetons to the Eastern seaboard hungry bears frequently were caught trying to feed on human food.

Johnson hopes these close encounters lead to concrete answers.

The five year study should show how bears survive in the worst conditions, and this summer could be the driest in a decade.

Researchers told CBS4 only eight cubs were found in their study this year, which they say is a shockingly low number.

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