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Park Services closes Utah campground due to bear activity; wildlife officials urge people to be 'bear aware'

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 29 2012 9:21 p.m. MDT

JENSEN, Uintah County — A primitive campground at Dinosaur National Monument has been closed for the remainder of the season because of repeated sightings of a black bear.

"We've had frequent bear sightings to the point where it seems like the bear is residing right there around the campsite," said Dan Johnson, the monument's chief of interpretation.

"We really want to minimize any interaction between the bears — who are just doing their thing looking for food — and people who would be in the area," Johnson added, explaining the closure order issued Wednesday for the Ely Creek campground.

The closure does not include the Jones Hole Trail or the Jones Hole river campsites, though visitors are being warned about the presence of bears in the area.

The decision by the National Park Service comes just days before thousands of people are expected to head for the outdoors to celebrate the Labor Day holiday. It also comes as wildlife officials in Utah say they've seen an increase in reports of problem bears, especially in the northeastern part of the state.

As of Wednesday, the state Division of Wildlife Resources had recorded as many as 25 reports of problem bears in 2012, according to Ron Stewart, an outreach manager with the agency.

"It's on the high end of what we average," Stewart said, "and that's very much a concern."

The division classifies bears incidents at three different levels. A level 1 bear is an animal that is spotted in its natural environment and exhibits an appropriate fear of humans. A level 2 bear is one that is in an area where it's not supposed to be, like a campground or near cabins, but hasn't caused trouble. A level 3 bear is one that has become habituated to humans or destroys livestock.

"We had three in the last week that went high level 2 and level 3," Stewart said. "We had to take out two of those this weekend.

"(Division of Wildlife Resources) biologists got on to try to help animals, so to actually have to take one under those circumstances just kind of breaks their heart," he added.

Both of the bears that were destroyed were in the Uintah Basin. One was caught killing a rancher's sheep; the other was menacing people in a campground.

Dinosaur National Monument employees faced a similar situation in May, when a ranger shot and killed a bear on the Colorado side of the monument.

The Park Service initially partnered with the Colorado Division of Wildlife in the summer and fall of 2011 to try to trap the bear. That effort was unsuccessful, and the bear went into hibernation.

Then, on May 17, a ranger living in the cabin at the Gates of Lodore campground awoke about 5 a.m. to the sound of the bear trying to rip the screen door off the cabin.

"We made the decision that we had to (destroy the bear) in the interest of public safety," monument superintendent Mary Risser said at the time, adding that relocating a bear who is habituated to humans "usually doesn't work."

On May 27, the bear again entered the campground and stole food from two campsites, despite the efforts of people to scare it off. That's when a ranger shot and killed the animal, which was easily identified as the problem bear because of a "distinctive brown marking," Risser said.

"A lot of people, when they look at sagebrush environments, don't think of them as bear habitats, but they are," Johnson said, noting that Dinosaur National Monument has also had an increase in bear sightings this year.

Johnson and Stewart agreed that drought conditions have been hard on the state's bears and have probably led to more sightings of the animals.

"There really isn't anything out there for them to eat," Stewart said. "If you go up on the mountains, you're not seeing the berries, you're not seeing the nuts and things like that."

That means the bears are expanding their range, which often brings them into contact with humans. And when those humans leave food, garbage or animal feed out, it draws the bears in, Stewart said.

"(Bears) will come in smelling that stuff, and they'll check it out," he said. "If they don't find food, they'll move on. If they do find food, then it becomes a habit and that's when we have to step in."

The best way to reduce the likelihood of having an unwanted encounter with a bear while camping is to maintain a clean campsite, Stewart said.

Store food, drinks and other scented items like deodorants in a vehicle, a bear-safe container or in a bag tied to a tree. Dispose of trash in bear-proof Dumpsters. Wipe down picnic tables, burn food off grills, change clothes after cooking, and store those clothes like you would food.

"The bears are on the last stretch now. They've got to put on as much weight as they can (before they hibernate)," Stewart said. "So we've still got two or three months of possible bear problems."

E-mail: gliesik@desnews.com

Twitter: GeoffLiesik

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