One question on the minds of many hikers and campers alike is: “are there grizzly bears in Colorado?” Known for being one predator that often gets aggressive during interactions with humans, these bears have a violent reputation in places they inhabit, including Alaska, where carrying a large-caliber firearm into the backcountry is often recommended due to the bears’ presence. This got us curious about Colorado. While the general opinion seems to be that grizzlies are gone from the Centennial State, reports of sightings still happen on a relatively regular basis, whether it’s said in our online comment section or via an official report filed with Colorado Parks & Wildlife. We dug a little deeper, and here’s what we found.

Colorado’s ‘Last’ Grizzly

While nowadays grizzlies are considered to be absent from Colorado, but this wasn’t always the case. In fact, grizzlies once thrived in the Centennial State thanks to ample food sources and plenty of wilderness space to roam. However, during the 1940s and 50s, their numbers started to dwindle thanks to a variety of factors, including a government-funded program for hunters aimed at reducing their population. Seen as a massive threat to livestock, this species was pushed into a smaller and smaller habitation zone until their last holdout was a just tiny section in the southern part of the San Juan Mountain Range. Eventually, around 1952, it was decided that grizzlies were completely gone from Colorado.

However, this claim was proven inaccurate in 1979, when a bow-carrying elk hunter, Ed Wiseman, was attacked and mauled near Blue Lake, an alpine lake in the same mountain range where grizzlies made their last stand 27 years before. Believe it or not, the hunter survived, escaping after he was able to kill the bear by stabbing it with one of the arrows from his quiver. His story was so unbelievable that the hunter eventually took a lie detector test to prove he was telling the truth – he passed.

The conclusion was drawn that this grizzly bear was old and on its last leg, making it desperate enough to attack the hunter yet also weak enough to be so easily killed. While many were quick to again make the claim that Colorado’s last grizzly had been killed, others were skeptical. While there were no other confirmed grizzly sightings during that time (or confirmed sightings since), experts were able to tell that this deceased bear had previously nursed cubs, begging the question of whether or not descendants of these cubs might still be around.

Life After ‘Colorado’s Last Grizzly’

On one hand, most experts agree that there are no more grizzlies in Colorado. On the other hand, there’s still a form on the official Colorado Parks & Wildlife website that allows one to report a grizzly spotting – and sightings by credible people do happen. For example, one 2006 report was investigated after two experienced hunters claimed to spot an adult grizzly and cubs near Independence Pass. In this case, as with many others, officials were unable to find evidence that grizzlies were present. Because finding evidence has proven difficult, this is typically where most investigations begin and end. Were the grizzlies ever there in the first place? Or did they simply move on before a proper investigative search was conducted? Without conclusive proof, officials are forced to assume they were never there.

A form that allows someone to report a grizzly sighting on the Colorado Parks & Wildlife website. Following steps allow witnesses to explain the experience, describing the bears, how they spotted them, and where the incident occurred, among other things. (http://cpw.state.co.us; screenshot)

It’s also worth mentioning that rumors circulating the Internet claim sightings that occur in Colorado tend to be ignored because they may lead to new rules and regulations stemming from the Endangered Species Act, including potential limitations on logging and a moratorium on hunting bears. While it’s probably unlikely that Colorado’s missing grizzly population is part of a conspiracy theory designed to protect the logging industry, it’s a concern that popped up several times during research of the topic.

Misidentification and Misinformation

It’s easy to see how a cinnamon black bear (pictured) can be mistaken for a grizzly to the untrained eye. Photo Credit: Yellowstone National Park.

It’s likely that most of the grizzly sighting reports are black bear sightings mistaken for the spotting of a grizzly. According to one recent report, the black bear population in Colorado is booming, putting their number at around 19,000 in the Centennial State (compare this to around 1,400 wild grizzlies left in the entire American West). While a black bear’s name implies that this species is black in color, that’s not always the case.

Black bears are most commonly black, but they can also be brown, cinnamon, and even white.

Here’s a shot of a white black bear taken outside of Durango, Colorado. Photo Credit: Jamie Carlos Manzanares (reader submission).

It’s also important to consider the misinformation about the size of black bears. While they’re often depicted as being a much smaller animal than a grizzly, some black bears can weight up to 800 pounds. Most female grizzlies top out at less than 450 pounds, and while male grizzlies are larger, they still tend to be less than 850 pounds when they’re full grown, a difference unlikely to be noticed by the untrained eye. Given both of these considerations, the misleading information about the color and size of each species, it’s understandable that someone might encounter a large black bear that’s brown or cinnamon in color and think that it’s a grizzly bear, especially when seen from afar.

Here’s a breakdown of appearance differences between the black bear and the grizzly. Often most obvious is the shape of the face. Compare the image of the black bear above with the grizzlies at the top of the article. Media Credit: mdragna1.

The Future of Grizzly Bears in Colorado

If we assume that grizzlies are no longer in Colorado, it still leaves the question of whether or not they will return. Two scenarios seem the most feasible – that grizzlies migrate back into Colorado from another area or that grizzlies are reintroduced to the state. As far as migration goes, it’s most likely that grizzlies would come to Colorado from Wyoming, an adjacent state known to be home to grizzlies, specifically in the Yellowstone National Park area. While this may be a possibility, it’s unlikely, as the area where most grizzlies live in Wyoming is in the northwestern-most part of the state – as far from Colorado as they could be. Experts have also cited habitat issues as preventing the migration of bears from this area, as well as the terrain that migrating bears would encounter along the way, including manmade barriers like oil industry developments and massive highways.

The second possibility would be reintroduction – a topic that’s regularly brought up and always shot down. Pro-reintroduction arguments range from returning the ecosystem to its natural order to reintroducing this unique species in attempt to increase tourism dollars spent by bear seekers, something that places like the Grand Tetons reap real financial benefits from. Of course, the counter-argument of reintroduction is that Colorado’s landscape and culture doesn’t offer the same undisturbed refuge as in places like Wyoming and Alaska, which are comparatively less populated and less explored by the residents. While bears can thrive in these isolated and remote areas, the increased likelihood of grizzly-human interactions in Colorado could result in a dangerous (likely deadly) dilemma.

Final Note

So, are there grizzlies in Colorado? In my unofficial opinion (based solely on the research they I did for this article), I’d say it’s doubtful. That being said, I wouldn’t be shocked to find out that this opinion is wrong. The Colorado Parks & Wildlife authorities must think that their presence is still a possibility, otherwise it seems unlikely that they’d keep an official web form for reporting grizzly sightings on their website. Plus, it’s not like reports of grizzly sightings from credible sources have ceased. Sure, many of these reports may be misidentifications of black bears, but it makes one wonder if this is always the case? After all, the last time a grizzly was seen in Colorado was a whopping 27 years after the species was thought to be completely gone. Perhaps the ‘last’ mother grizzly that was killed in 1979 had children that survived their adolescence and perhaps their children did the same. Maybe somewhere in the San Juans there’s a den that’s home to perhaps the most infamous North American predator, passively hiding from humanity. Until a grizzly is spotted in the Centennial State, I don’t think we’ll be able to definitively say whether they’ve been extirpated. After all, it’s nearly impossible to find evidence that they are truly gone.

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