Colorado biker hits bear as bruins seek food near homes, people
DENVER (AP) – Triathlete Sabrina Oei was speeding downhill at nearly 40 mph, cycling through the Colorado foothills, when a black bear brought her to a sudden, painful, stop.
Oei (pronounced “OU-eee”) slammed broadside into the bear when it wandered onto the race course Sunday. She went airborne, then slid on her back across the pavement.
She wasn’t seriously injured and even finished the triathlon. The bear didn’t seem to be hurt, either, scampering back into the woods. But the unusual high-speed encounter is a dramatic example of what experts are seeing across the West as drought forces bears to forage farther for food while urban development pushes into formerly wild areas.
Oei said she was focusing on the paved trail in the Boulder Peak Triathlon, which draws more than 1,400 athletes to a course just three miles outside of Boulder. She spotted the bear out of the corner of her eye and knew in a flash she had no way to avoid it.
“It was just unbelievable,” Oei said Monday, recovering from scrapes and bruises. “In that moment you think, ‘I’m going to hit this bear.”‘
Oei’s encounter is the latest anecdotal evidence coming in from around the West this year: In Nevada, near Lake Tahoe, a bear climbed into a vintage convertible July 2 and snacked on pizza and beer as a crowd gathered. In Alaska, a bear charged a jogger in an Anchorage city park this month. In Colorado Springs, a woman came home to find a bear rummaging through her refrigerator last week.
Colorado Division of Wildlife biologist Jerry Apker said encounters are up and will likely become even more frequent next month when bears start packing on weight for the winter.
“By mid-August, they start shifting gears when they start feeding. They might be foraging 22 hours a day,” he said.
Years of drought have narrowed food choices and forced bears to forage far from their habitat. The situation gets worse as development moves into traditional bear habitats, and newcomers unfamiliar with bears leave out improperly latched trash cans and other attractive treats.
“Once they get a food reward, they’ve got an incredible memory and they come back to it,” Apker said.
Linda Masterson, author of “Living With Bears: A Practical Guide to Bear Country,” said the animals are big eating machines that are always on the prowl for an easy meal.
“A normal Colorado bear may range five to 15 miles a day, roaming for food,” she said. “They are not looking for people to eat – we are not on the bear menu – but people do have food sources that are just very attractive to bears.”
Something as seemingly innocuous as a bird feeder is an easy, 12,000-calorie meal for a bear, she said.
Authorities across the West try to relocate troublesome bears, but Apker said they have to protect human life and will euthanize bears that put people in danger. New Mexico has a “three strikes” policy. Officials trap and move a bear found in a populated area two times before killing it.
In Colorado, it’s a “two strikes” policy. And some bears don’t even get that first pass if they’re aggressive or found in an extremely dangerous location, such as near a school, Apker said.
More alarmingly, he said, the increased encounters are coming even as bear populations in Colorado decline. He said biologists estimate the state has 10 percent to 25 percent fewer bears than in the mid-1990s, due to drought. That they are being seen so frequently highlights just how desperate for food the animals have become, he said.
Oei, a 31-year-old public relations specialist and competitive athlete, said Sunday’s bear encounter was her first.
“I flew over the handlebars, rotated over my upper right shoulder and skidded on my back and shoulder in the gravel. It cracked my helmet,” said Oei. “I got up pretty much immediately, swearing profusely. You’re just shocked.”
The bear stumbled, then disappeared into the nearby woods.
“The only thing on that bear’s mind would be getting out of Dodge as fast as possible,” Masterson said.
With 15 miles to go on the 26-mile bike portion, and then a six-mile run, Oei was knocked out of contention as she waited for paramedics. But her day wasn’t over.
“A race official came by, he spun the front wheel, tested the brakes and said, ‘This bike is great, you can finish the race.’ So I said, ‘I guess I’ll finish the race.'”
She finished in just over three hours, 72nd out of 144 in her age group.
Race director Barry Siff said the bear crash is a first for the 15-year-old race.
“I was in the medical area when the call came in, they said ‘We have someone who just hit a bear. We said, you mean a barrier? They said no, we mean a bear,” Siff said.
“Crazy. Just crazy,” he said. “Maybe what we’ll do is mark that spot next year with a sign that says ‘Bear Crossing.'”
On the Net:
Colorado Division of Wildlife: http://wildlife.state.co.us/
2006: Year of the Bear?
Experts say bear encounters are increasing across the West as the effects of a long drought forces the animals to roam farther in search of food and development encroaches on formerly wild areas. Some examples:
Alaska: About 20 miners were startled when a large bear chased a smaller one through their industrial site near Sitka for about 30 minutes on July 18, ignoring workers and eventually killing and eating the smaller bear.
Idaho: A grizzly bit a 53-year-old man hiking near Yellowstone National Park on July 3.
Nevada: A bear crawled into a parked convertible near Lake Tahoe on July 2 and snacked on jalapeño pizza and drank from beer and vodka containers as a crowd watched.
New Mexico: A Santa Fe homeowner found a bear hiding in a tree in his yard on June 26. Officials tranquilized and removed it.
Oregon: Bear sightings in a city park during a Shakespeare festival prompted city warnings in Ashland on May 25.
Utah: Wildlife officers killed a black bear on July 19 after it bit a sleeping Boy Scout through his tent about 40 miles south of Salt Lake City.
Wyoming: Officials tranquilized and captured a bear seen crossing Interstate 25 near Cheyenne on June 13.
– The Associated Press
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