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Avoid Academy's 'bad news' bears

Black bears, such as the one pictured here, are mostly vegetarians, eating grasses and berries. Bear sightings have increased at the Academy in August 2010 as the bears eat massive amounts of food to prepare for winter. (U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Kaplan)

Black bears, such as the one pictured here, are mostly vegetarians, eating grasses and berries. Bear sightings have increased at the Academy in August 2010 as the bears eat massive amounts of food to prepare for winter. (U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Kaplan)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Bear sightings near the Terrazzo and Cadet Area on base have increased in recent weeks, and Academy officials ask Academy staff and visitors to be cautious.

Like the students, the bear is right on schedule: August is when cadets go back to hitting the books and bears start hitting the buffet table.

"They got one thing on their minds, and that's eating," said Dr. Tom Unangst, an assistant professor with the Academy Department of Biology. "By and large, they avoid human contact, but the drive to eat overtakes their innate desire to avoid human contact."

The only bear species now present in Colorado is the American black bear, which is the smallest North American species. Encounters between humans and bears at the Academy are quite common, as the Academy is situated smack dab in the middle of natural habitat for a variety of wildlife, including bears.

Although stories of marauding bears are generally overblown, people should disabuse themselves of the idea that some bears are friendly or approachable.

"Humans who approach a bear are simply not using common sense," said Dr. Brian Mihlbachler, a natural resource planner at the Academy. "A bear that is allowing people to approach that closely is obviously habituated to people, which is a dangerous situation for both people and the bear."

Dr. Unangst said the only bears that aren't dangerous to the public are found in zoos. Even at the Academy, bears that keep bumping into humans aren't mingling in hopes of making friends.

"All bears should be viewed as a threat," Dr. Unangst said. "Don't be misled by prevalence of sightings. Keep your distance. Their closure rate and speed is pretty scary."

On a less intimidating note, the belief that bears "have a taste for human flesh" is almost entirely untrue, he said. Bears are largely vegetarians. About 90 percent of their diet consists of grasses and berries.

"Basically, they are opportunistic feeders, going after whatever is readily available that will provide the necessary calories," Dr. Mihlbachler said. "Presently, bears are feeding mostly on ripened fruits -- currant, chockecherry, wild plum, -- and vegetation while everything is green and growing."

The "man-eater" reputation doesn't apply to black bears. Nevertheless, people tend to think the worst when they see bears rise up on their hind legs. That very often sends attack signals to humans. In reality, though, the bear is only trying to get a better sense of its surroundings, Dr. Unangst said. Eyesight in bears is roughly equal to that of humans, but bears' sense of smell can cover up to 5 miles.

That's why Dr. Unangst isn't surprised to hear about a bear showing up on the Terrazzo. The scent of food wafting from Mitchell Hall could attract it, or perhaps leftovers thrown in trash containers are the enticement.

This time of year, it doesn't take much. In August and September, bears enter a state called hyperphagia. They're looking to eat massive amounts of food so they can bulk up for the winter.

"They'll eat 20,000 calories a day," Dr. Unangst said. "When they come across trash, they have a good memory."

People at the Academy have two excellent resources that can help them coexist with hungry bears. The first is the Natural Resources Office located opposite Falcon Stadium. The other is the Colorado Division of Wildlife website at www.wildlife.state.co.us.

With food being bears' top priority right now, the Division of Wildlife's admonition not to feed them is especially important. The catchphrase "a fed bear is a dead bear" helps drive home that point.

The division's website also says this: "Every time we're forced to destroy a bear, it's not just the bear that loses. We all lose a little piece of the wildness that makes Colorado so special."