A few weeks ago, Gazette photojournalist Michael Ciaglo was cruising around on a snowy afternoon looking for feature photo ideas when he saw a large rock moving in a field in the Woodmen Valley near the Peregrine neighborhood.
He stopped and looked again. This time he saw three large, moving boulders.
Turned out they were bears.
A cinammon-colored sow and two cubs playing in the snow.
Not cute, cuddly little bear cubs, mind you. These cubs were the size of Mini Coopers.
And the sow, well, she is about as big as a Humvee.
Ciaglo walked around the perimeter of the field and started taking photos. We published a slide show of the bears at gazette.com.
As he watched, Ciaglo noticed the bears disappearing into the side of a hill behind a snow-covered mound of dirt and logs.
Soon he realized he’d stumbled onto the bears’ den.
Ciaglo said he circled around as close as he dared, shooting pictures. Then, as he watched, a frightening scene began to unfold.
“Behind the bears, on top of the hill, I saw kids with sleds walking along,” Ciaglo said. “I got scared. I was afraid they were going to sled right down on the bears.”
Luckily, the kids kept hiking along the wooded ridge, oblivious to the family of bears below them.
When I saw his photos, I immediately recognized the bears.
They have been regular visitors to my nearby Rockrimmon neighborhood.
I posted photos of them and many neighbors agreed. These bears forage the trash cans and garages up and down Woodmen Valley.
I had a close encounter, in fact, a few weeks ago when I opened my garage door one evening and went back inside the house for a few minutes.
Suddenly I heard a commotion in the garage, opened the door and came face to muzzle with the sow and her cubs. One was trying to open a trash can holding dog food. Another was trying to pry open a steel can where I store bird seed. The third was rooting around my recycling bins.
I slammed the door and pounded the walls, hollering at them to leave. My son Ben also shouted at them. Nugget the Wonder Dog joined the fray, barking with all the ferocity his 10-pound body could muster.
About the same time my wife, Cary, pulled up in the driveway. I implored her, in my most loving shout, to drive up and honk at the bears.
Perhaps Cary has watched too many cartoons because she was reluctant, fearing the bears would see beyond her headlights, spot her behind the wheel and yank her through the window and into the driveway, mauling her.
So I grabbed my keys and hit the panic alarm, causing my Jeep to honk obnoxiously and flash its lights. Eventually, the bears became annoyed and slowly meandered out into the night, leaving me to apologize, profusely, for having shouted — did I mention lovingly — at my bride.
And I called Kurt Schroeder, a Colorado Springs parks official, to see if he was aware of the den packed with about 900 pounds of black bears.
“Of course, we have bears living all over the place,” Schroeder said of the 200-square-mile city, which includes hundreds of acres of open space and parks adjacent to the national forest and prime wildlife habitat.
“But I’ve never heard of a situation like this,” he said, suggesting his crews will erect signs warning passersby of dangerous wildlife in the vicinity.
“When we know there’s bear activity in a certain place, we have a responsibility to warn people to be extra careful,” Schroeder said, noting the city uses similar signs when folks spot mountain lions or rattlesnakes or other dangerous critters.
“People should be wary of bears,” Chick said. “Don’t go to the mouth of a den and snap photos. The bears may not be down for winter. People could get hurt.”
He worries people will get too close under the misconception the bears are hybernating and safely asleep for the winter.
“We darted and removed some bears late winter last year because they were feeding all winter on trash,” Chick said. “They’d gotten used to a different food source than nuts and berries. We had to move them.”
He’d prefer the bears be allowed to stay in their dens and co-habitate with humans.
“We’re all living in bear country,” Chick said. “And mountain lion country. And coyote country.
“We have a lot of wildlife in the city. And we’ve got bears denning in the city.”
Instead of having to tranquilize and remove bears, or destroy them for getting too bold, Chick wouldprefer people like me not leave their garage doors open, tempting them with dog food and bird seed and refrigerators and trash cans.
But he fears he may have to make a tough choice soon about these bears.
“We’ve got a sow who continually raises cubs and teaches them to live in the city,” Chick said. “They’ve made this their habitat. They know if a garage door is open, they’ve got an easy meal.
“Typical bears remember a berry patch or a spot where they can find acorns and fruit trees. These bears
know when it’s trash day.”
This sow and her cubs have adapted too well.
“We shouldn’t see them this much,” he said. “They aren’t afraid of us.”
As a result, they could become a risk to human health and safety. Sadly he doesn’t have many options when bears get too bold and even aggressive.
“We can relocate them or put them down,” he said. “Usually we do a relocation and get them back in habitat more suitable to bears, instead of being trash eaters.”
But removing a problem bear doesn’t mean the problem will just disappear. There are just too many bears.
“We’ve relocated a lot of bears out of that drainage,” he said. “We’re always going to have bears.”
So we need to learn to live with them. And hopefully not train them to eat garbage, and enter open garages.
As for the Woodmen Valley bears, officials will be watching the den.
If you stumble onto it, as Michael Ciaglo did, don’t approach it.
If you happen to come face-to-face with a bear, back away slowly.
Carry bear spray or an air horn.
Hopefully, you won’t look like a meal and the bear will be more scared of you than you are of him!