Home to the highest ranges of the Rocky Mountains, stretching from the Great Plains to the Colorado Plateau, Colorado is justly famed for its scenic beauty and outdoor recreation.
It’s a year-round vacation destination, hosting as it does some of the most famous ski resorts in the world and vast tracts of public lands inviting hikers, backpackers, rafters, hunters, anglers, and wildlife-watchers.
Speaking of wildlife, the Rocky Mountain State claims an abundance, and a few of its native critters rank on the intimidating side of things.
Formidable as a bull elk riled up by the rut—or, freakier yet, a cow moose defending her calves—might be, bears likely top the list of animals Colorado vacationers are most worried about.
(Rightly or wrongly: That aforementioned cow moose is arguably the most dangerous non-human animal you can run into here, excepting a free-ranging dog.)
So let’s dig in: Are there bears in Colorado? How common are Colorado bear attacks?
Colorado has a healthy population of American black bears. At one point in time, grizzly bears populated the region, as well, but that is no longer the case. Human encounters with black bears in Colorado are fairly common.
However, Colorado sees proportionately few bear attacks. In fact, there have only been 4 recorded fatal bear attacks in the state. But, as we’ll get into, much of the state can be considered bear country, and anyone recreating in these places should follow proper bear-aware practices—for their own safety, and for the good of Colorado’s wild bruins.
In this article, we’ll discuss Colorado’s native bear species, run through a bit of the state’s history of bear attacks (including its exceedingly few fatal ones), and point you toward good resources on sharing the landscape respectfully and safely with these impressive—and usually unaggressive—beasts.
Types of Bears Found in Colorado
At the time of Euro-American exploration and settlement in the state, Colorado boasted two native species of bears: the American black bear and the grizzly bear.
Wildlife authorities consider only one of these, the black bear, to still be present on the Colorado landscape. The official word—and the judgment of most experts—is that grizzlies are extirpated from and no longer present in Colorado.
Read on to learn more about both species (and the lingering question of the grizzly’s possible continued existence in the Colorado Rockies).
Black Bears in Colorado – Appearance and Size
The American black bear is the smallest of North America’s three bear species.
That doesn’t mean it’s not a hefty creature, though:
With exceptional male (boar) black bears sometimes tipping the scales past 800 pounds, this is actually the third-biggest of the world’s bears.
Such hefty black bears, though, are generally more common in the East; typical weights in the Colorado Rockies would range from 150 to 450 pounds or so.
As elsewhere in the Rockies and parts of the Far West, black bears in Colorado are, despite their name, often brown- or cinnamon-colored.
Distribution, Population & Habitat
Colorado Parks & Wildlife estimates a healthy population of about 17,000 to 20,000 black bears in the state.
The species is found across roughly two-thirds of Colorado, mainly in the western, mountainous part of the state but also along the gallery forests of river bottoms on the Great Plains, especially in the southeast.
This distribution reflects the black bear’s preference for forested terrain:
This is an animal that, when threatened (by another bear, say, or a human), is wont to scramble up the nearest tree.
Black bears have occasionally been seen well out on the grasslands of the eastern part of the state—one was seen wandering around south of Limon, Colorado in May 2021, for example—but, again, they’re likely mainly using the brush and timber along prairie rivers in such habitats.
Behavior, Diet & Aggression
Mainly active from mid-spring into late fall, sleeping away the winter in dens, black bears are classic omnivores, feeding most heavily on plant matter—grasses, sedges, flowers, stems, bulbs, bark, and the like—as well as insects such as ants and various grubs.
They’ll also opportunistically snatch rodents and other small animals, and will seasonally prey on young hoofed mammals such as deer fawns and elk calves. They also readily scavenge carrion.
Black bears generally want nothing to do with people.
One exception is a bear accustomed to scavenging from messy campsites or poorly secured garbage—or, even worse, receiving handouts from people along a trail or in a campground. (Yes, it sounds crazy, but you’d be surprised how many folks try to feed bears.)
Such habituated animals often show less natural fear around people, and might even behave somewhat aggressively if they think they might get a snack out of the deal.
If garbage isn’t involved, another common cause of dicey bear-human interactions is people approaching a black bear too closely.
This might happen at a national park such as Rocky Mountain National Park, or a rural, even suburban, neighborhood or county park.
Bears need their personal space, and while a black bear tends to be less outwardly aggressive when feeling threatened than a grizzly, like any animal it might bite or swipe a person edging too close.
That may be all the more true of a female (sow) black bear with her cubs, although, here again, this species seems less prone to aggressive defense than grizzly bears; a mother black bear is rather more likely to send her cubs scurrying up a tree if she thinks they’re in danger. Regardless, give any black bear you see lots of room, and don’t approach it.
In incredibly rare circumstances, certain black bears—and, research suggests, these are typically adult males—sometimes appear to size up people as potential prey items.
Again, while predominantly herbivorous and insectivorous, black bears sometimes actively hunt prey.
Some of the human fatalities attributed to black bears in North America show the hallmarks of a predatory incident.
Potentially predatory black bears, as well as any that seem interested in handouts or scavenging human food, should be met with stand-your-ground confidence. Shout, throw rocks or sticks, wave your arms, and otherwise loudly and boldly warn off a black bear that approaches you with alert curiosity, pricked ears, a steady gaze, and an overall calm-seeming demeanor.
Bear spray can certainly help to convince such a bear you’re nothing to mess around with.
A black bear that feels threatened—the more likely animal you’ll be dealing with in Colorado—will usually appear quite different: ears flattened, teeth clacking, head lowered, swatting the ground, huffing.
Move away from such a bear slowly, talking calmly and without turning your back on it, and you’ll usually defuse the situation.
The Great Plains and Southern Rocky Mountains of Colorado were, until relatively recently, definitely home to grizzly bears: the most widely distributed North American subspecies of the brown bear, which also ranges across Eurasia.
Historically speaking, grizzlies were common along the gallery forests of the Northern Plains—in Montana, for example—and while there are relatively few records of Great Plains grizzlies in Colorado, it’s likely they were there to some extent along the drainages.
Most historical accounts of grizzlies in the state stem from the Rocky Mountains and the adjoining plains right along the mountain front.
Some of these “silvertips” (as the grizzly is sometimes called) were of impressive proportion:
According to David Petersen’s fine book Ghost Grizzlies, a grizzly killed on Lone Cone in May 1907 was estimated to weigh anywhere between 800 and 1,000 pounds. (That griz was chanced upon at an impressive 11,000 feet of elevation.)
The infamous “Old Mose,” a big boar grizzly charged (fairly or not) with killing much livestock in and around Fremont and Chaffee counties around the turn of the last century, was—when finally killed in 1904—reckoned from 900 to well more than 1,000 pounds in weight.
As David E. Brown notes in The Grizzly in the Southwest, “the Rio Grande and San Juan national forests have always been considered ‘grizzly country.’”
The San Juan Mountains unquestionably seem to be where grizzlies held out the longest in Colorado, from which the great bear was otherwise mostly absent by the early decades of the 20th century. There are three confirmed grizzly records from the San Juans after 1950.
A shepherd killed a subadult grizzly near Plataro in August of 1951, and a government trapper removed a young adult male from the Rio Grande Wilderness that September.
Then, in late September 1979, a hunting guide named Ed Wiseman was seriously mauled by a sow grizzly bear whom he believed had felt cornered after being jumped by his client.
Initially attempting to play dead, Wiseman ended up stabbing the grizzly with one of his bowhunting arrows, and she soon aborted the attack and died.
There have been many searches in the San Juans—big, rugged, wild country, to be sure—since the “Wiseman bear” was killed, but nothing definitive concerning the continued existence of grizzlies in that range has been found.
There have been potential scats collected, diggings investigated, and even a 1995 incident in which a 25-year-old man was charged and circled by what he believed to be a grizzly bear in the South San Juan Wilderness.
But state wildlife authorities—on record, anyway—don’t believe any grizzlies are left in Colorado.
Bear Encounters & Attacks in Colorado
Bear issues are a fact of life in Colorado, but that’s generally more a function of human distribution, density, and behavior than ursine habits.
According to the Colorado Encyclopedia, better than 1,800 bear encounters in the state ended up reported in 2020.
Most confrontations don’t involve injury to people, though all too often black bears exhibiting some measure of habituation end up trapped and removed from their home range—or even euthanized, as a last resort—by wildlife officials.
Many of Colorado’s top tourist destinations—from national parks such as Rocky Mountain and Black Canyon of the Gunnison to mountain resort towns such as Aspen, Breckenridge, and Vail—fall within black-bear country.
With more and more people visiting—and living—in bear country in the state, conflict is just about inevitable.
More than a few bear incidents in Colorado have involved black bears breaking into buildings, presumably in search of food.
In the summer of 2020, for example, a black bear broke through the front door of a home in Castle Creek Valley in the Aspen area, and ended up swiping a man inside, resulting in (non-lethal) injuries to his head and neck. Colorado Parks & Wildlife tracked down the offending bear and euthanized it.
Colorado has seen a few fatal black-bear attacks on people: four confirmed ones, which is a very small number, all things considered.
The most recent took place in the spring of 2021, when a woman walking her dogs near Trimble, north of Durango, was apparently killed and partly consumed by a sow black bear and at least one of her yearling cubs.
The sow and her two offspring were killed by authorities. It’s not clear what may have provoked the attack, though, as Backpacker notes, dogs often appear to provoke bears into aggression.
In 2009, a 74-year-old woman who’d fed bears on her property near Ouray—and been warned by officials about the practice—was killed and eaten by one.
In 1993, a 24-year-old man shot a black bear that had tore into his camping trailer; the wounded bear ended up attacking and killing him.
In the summer of 1971, a 31-year-old man was killed by a black bear that entered his campsite near Rocky Mountain National Park; his fiancée, who’d been sleeping in a separate tent, heard his screaming and responded, and ended up bitten, though not seriously. That bear was driven away by the victim’s brother-in-law, wielding a frying pan.
How many grizzly attacks may have occurred in Colorado before the silvertip was eliminated from the state is unclear, though we certainly have the 1979 Wiseman incident on record.
Three human deaths were connected to Old Moses, that alleged cattle- and sheep-killing giant from the late 1800s and early 1900s, but it’s hard to discern the truth when it comes to such a legendary—and long-ago—animal.
Grizzlies tend to be more aggressive than black bears, as already mentioned, though their attacks on people are disproportionately defensive incidents, especially mother bears protecting their cubs.
Black bears are common in much of Colorado, but are highly unlikely to trouble people.
If camping, secure all of your food and garbage from bears.
While hiking, carry bear spray and don’t crowd any bears you might chance upon; back away slowly while facing the bear, talking calmly and extending your arms, and almost assuredly the bear will leave you alone.
Again, if a bear approaches you intently, or follows you on a trail, stand your ground and shout, wave your arms, and (if necessary) throw objects at it or deploy bear spray to ward it off.
The Colorado Parks & Wildlife website includes some great information on minimizing conflict with black bears, well worth checking out if you’re vacationing in this Rocky Mountain wonderland.
Nine times out of 10, a sighting of a black bear in Colorado will be a thrill. These are marvelous, intelligent, and charismatic mammals, not bloodthirsty monsters, and we should cherish the opportunity to share a landscape with them.
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Hope this helps!