DURANGO, Colo. (CBS4) – A groundbreaking study could change many of the things that are known about black bears. Researchers in the San Juan Mountains have been in close contact with 40 bears, going right into their dens during hibernation.

Heather Johnson, Colorado Park and Wildlife’s chief researcher on black bears, is finding more cubs than she has seen in years.

“These bears are not naive and they almost can’t be naive to human development,” said Johnson.

She found a den with two chocolate brown cubs and their mother, a gigantic 220-pound jet-black sow, a few hundred yards from a new development.

A black bear cub in the study (credit: CBS)

A black bear cub in the study (credit: CBS)

The cubs only weigh five pounds. They’re smaller than the teddy bears toddlers have in their beds. When they’re brought outside it’s the first time they have ever seen the world outside their den.

The researchers monitor the bears with a yearly physical and a reading on the tracking collar that was placed on at the beginning of the study. The newborn cubs get the same treatment.

“We rate the body condition on a 1-4 (scale) … she’s in pretty good shape for a mama with two babies,” said Lyle Willmarth, a wildlife research technician.

Researchers examining a mother black bear (credit: CBS)

Researchers examining a mother black bear (credit: CBS)

It’s commonly believed once a bear finds an easy food source with people that the bear will always rely on human food. Those beliefs are being challenged through this work.

“There’s a perception that once a bear discovers a town they’re always going to use that resource for food, and we do not see that at all,” Johnson said.

Data from the mother’s collar shows she spent much of the past six years on the same hills east of Durango. The bear researchers worked on, B55 in the study, only went into populated areas when the search for food in the forest became desperate. Those results have been reflected on 40 bears in the survey that is now 80 percent complete.

CBS4's Stan Bush holds a black bear cub in the study (credit: CBS)

CBS4’s Stan Bush holds a black bear cub in the study (credit: CBS)

Johnson’s five-year study hopes to shed new light on how bears react when people move into their territory.

“They mostly associate risk with humans, so they don’t want to do that unless they have to,” Johnson said.

It’s an important recognition. Johnson says the bears know their part of the forest better than most people know their own neighborhood.

The research has already shown bears to be clever, good problem solvers, and highly aware of potential danger around them. It’s also reinforced the belief that they’re fiercely protective parents. The cubs’ mother won’t reject them, despite their close contact with people.

Researchers are entering the final year of their study. The teams in the field have worked with the bears long enough that some of the cubs they pulled out as newborns are now old enough to have cubs of their own.

– Written by CBS4 reporter Stan Bush for CBSDenver.com

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