A 39-year-old woman was found dead Friday night off County Road 203 near Trimble Lane, north of Durango, after what Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials believe was a bear attack.
An autopsy on the woman will be performed by the La Plata County coroner early next week, said Jason Clay, Northeast Region public information officer with CPW, in an interview with The Durango Herald. The coroner’s office will identify the remains and determine the official cause of death.
The woman, a Durango resident, was believed to have gone walking with her two dogs earlier Friday, according to information provided to the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office by her boyfriend, Clay said. The victim had last communicated with her boyfriend late in the morning.
The boyfriend, whose name has not been released, told the Sheriff’s Office he returned home around 8:30 p.m. and discovered the two dogs outside their home, but the woman was missing. He started searching for her and found her body around 9:30 p.m. He then called 911 to report the incident.
CPW wildlife officers responded and observed signs of consumption on the body and an abundance of bear scat and hair at the scene, Clay said.
La Plata County Sheriff’s deputies assisted in the investigation. CPW called in a dog team from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services to search the area.
The dog team quickly found a sow (female) black bear with two yearlings nearby. The bears were euthanized and are being taken to CPW’s Wildlife Health Lab in Fort Collins, where a necropsy is scheduled for Saturday night, Clay said.
“Anytime there’s an attack on a human, our policy is to put those bears down,” he said. “Our No. 1 job is always to keep human health and safety in mind.”
DNA evidence from the bears and the scene will be sent to Laramie for testing at the Wyoming Game and Fish Wildlife Forensic & Fish Health Laboratory.
“That could determine absolutely these were the bears that were responsible,” Clay said. “There was a lot of bear sign right at the scene from the consumption on the body that took place, bear scat, bear tracks and the dog team that we called in to aid in the search from the USDA Wildlife Services found the bears right in the area. So we’re confident, but the DNA can prove that definitively.”
“Bear attacks are extremely rare,” said Cory Chick, CPW Southwest Region manager, in a CPW news release. “This is a tragic event and a sad reminder that bears are wild and potentially dangerous. Out of an abundance of caution, the bears were removed for public safety. We ask the public to report any encounter with an aggressive bear to CPW.”
Chick asked the public to avoid the area as the CPW investigation with La Plata County continues. Wildlife officers worked throughout the night and into the morning to process the scene, looking for evidence to corroborate it was a wildlife attack.
An examination of the sow’s teeth led wildlife officers to believe she over 10 years old.
CPW has received a few reports from the Durango area of bears becoming active this spring. The majority of these have been sighting reports. On April 19, a resident along the Animas River and La Plata County Road 250 captured a single bear on his game camera and reported that the bear tore down his bird feeder. On March 23, CPW received a report of a bear getting into trash east of Durango off Florida Road.
“It is important that people report bear encounters to us, especially aggressive bear encounters,” Clay said.
Staying safe around bearsBears are active statewide, and it is important for people to familiarize themselves with what to do when they do encounter a bear and what they need to do should they find themselves in an aggressive situation, Clay said.
“These are wild animals,” he said, “and bears are dangerous animals.”
Encounters with bears can often be avoided by making one’s presence known.
“Make noise as you go when you’re out walking your dogs or on the trail,” he said. “Go with a buddy when you can, that’s a good way to continue to keep making noise.”
Deterrents, such as bear spray and air horns are effective at keeping bears away, Clay said.
“If you do have an encounter with a bear or you surprise a bear on the trail, you want to stand still, stay calm, let the bear identify you and leave,” he said. “Talk to it in a normal tone of voice. Be sure that the bear has an escape route. You don’t ever want to run from a bear or climb a tree. If you see cubs in the area, the mother is usually close by, and that’s an area that you want to leave immediately.”
If a bear doesn’t leave after you come across it, stand still, make yourself look bigger, wave your arms slowly overhead and talk calmly to that bear.
“You can slowly back away from the bear,” he said. “If the bear approaches you and starts to act aggressively, it could be a food-conditioned bear potentially. It’s rare, but bears can get aggressive, so you want to continue standing your ground, yell and throw small rocks in the direction of that bear.
“In the cases where a bear attack happens, you need to fight back with everything that you’ve got. Do not play dead.”