A man came home Friday evening to a perplexing scene: His girlfriend’s two dogs were outside the Durango, Colo., residence, their leashes still on. But his girlfriend was nowhere to be found.
He spent an hour searching before he found her body about 9:30 p.m. The 39-year-old woman had been killed in a bear attack while walking her dogs - an extraordinarily rare incident. The state has recorded three other such cases in the past 50 years.
“This is a tragic event and a sad reminder that bears are wild and potentially dangerous,” Cory Chick, Southwest Region manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said in a news release.
Authorities have not publicly identified the woman or her boyfriend. Officials killed a female black bear and two cubs after using dogs to track them down in the area, with the wildlife agency saying the animals were “removed for public safety.”
CPW spokesman Jason Clay told the Durango Herald that the agency’s policy is to put down bears following attacks on humans, adding that “our No. 1 job is always to keep human health and safety in mind.”
The La Plata County Coroner’s Office plans to perform an autopsy on the woman’s body to determine the cause of death. Wildlife officers summoned to the scene after the boyfriend found the body and called 911 saw signs that she had been partially eaten. They also saw bear scat and hair in the area off Highway 550, north of Durango.
A team from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services quickly found the three bears nearby Friday. The bodies of the bears are being taken to a Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s lab in Fort Collins for a necropsy, and DNA from the bears and the scene is heading to another lab for testing.
“That could determine absolutely these were the bears that were responsible,” Clay told the Herald. He said the agency is “confident, but the DNA can prove that definitively.”
Based on an evaluation of the female black bear’s teeth, wildlife officers say she was more than 10 years old. They spent hours at the scene, working through the night and into Saturday, searching for evidence to corroborate that the incident was a bear attack.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife has received several reports of bears becoming active this spring in the Durango area, located in the southwestern corner of the state. The majority have been sightings, the agency said in its news release. On March 23, someone reported a bear getting into trash, and a resident said a bear had torn down his bird feeder two weeks ago.
Black bears are generally smaller than grizzly bears, with males averaging around 275 pounds and females about 175 pounds, according to the state wildlife agency. Colorado once had both, but the last grizzly bear in the state was killed in 1979. Now, it’s home to an estimated 17,000 to 20,000 black bears in a habitat increasingly encroached upon by humans, creating the potential for more encounters, Colorado Parks and Wildlife said in a report.
The bears are naturally shy and wary of people. Typically, their instinct is to run away from potential danger, according to the wildlife agency.
Across the nation, recent headline-grabbing encounters include a 16-year-old runner killed by a black bear in 2017 after going off course during a race near Anchorage. In 2019, a camera caught a father and son shooting and killing a mother black bear and cubs as they were bedded down for winter in Prince William Sound in Alaska.
And months later, Oregon wildlife officials euthanized a young black bear after determining that he had become too comfortable with humans.
Experts have said bear attacks on humans are often related to dogs. Dave Garshelis, a former bear research scientist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, told ABC News that there have been cases of dog owners getting hurt when trying to intervene in conflicts between bears and dogs. In others, he said, the dog runs to its owner for protection and “next thing you know the bear is two feet away.”
CPW officials recommend that people make their presence known while in bear country. Clay suggested making noise or walking with a friend, the Herald reported. He said bear spray and air horns can be used as deterrents.
During run-ins with bears, he said, people should stand still and speak calmly. If the bear does not leave, they should stay in place while waving their arms to look bigger.
Wildlife experts and authorities say it’s rare for a black bear to become aggressive with a human. But Clay told the Herald that such instances call for fighting back “with everything that you’ve got.”
“These are wild animals,” he said, “and bears are dangerous animals.”