Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
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Steamboat Springs Whether it was an unusually large black bear that approached the archery elk camp in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness or something more fearsome, it was enough to put the fear into a veteran hunter from Alaska.
"My partner saw a huge brown-colored bear," former longtime South Routt resident Harold Lujan said Monday. "He was 80 yards from it and it scared him. He's seen a lot of black bear, a lot of grizzlies and a lot of brown bear. He said if it had stood up, it would have been 7 feet tall."
Chances are, you and I would be frightened, too, if we encountered a bear as tall as Shaquille O'Neal. But Lujan's hunting partner is more experienced than you and I (with large bears, not with NBA pivot men). And he was hunting with a biologist from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
"These guys are both biologists and big-time hunters," Lujan said. The man who saw the giant brown bear "operates a salmon factory and deals with bears all the time. He's shot grizzlies from close range with a bow."
So, it's roughly the third week in September during archery season, there is fresh snow on the ground where the hunters have been able to observe the tracks of a large bear, and a veteran hunter from Alaska who has killed grizz up close and personal gets a good look at a large bear. It's large enough to put the fear of God into him as it walks up the trail toward his campsite.
Do we have a grizzly bear sighting in Northern Colorado?
Not so fast, Lujan said.
"When you see a bear that's a 7-foot bear and it's brown colored and you're scared, you can't say it's 100 percent" a grizzly.
Nonetheless : "My friend said, 'That's the closest I've ever been to a bear that big!'"
This from a man who has apparently killed smaller grizzly bears at closer range. The men did not obtain any photographs of the beast. It would have been even better if it had rubbed itself on a dead pine tree nearby and left large silver hairs behind for wildlife biologists to examine. No such luck.
Area Wildlife Manager Jim Haskins, of the Colorado Division of Wildlife, said he wouldn't automatically reject reports of a grizzly from credible witnesses.
"I wouldn't be surprised at all" if a grizzly made its way down from Wyoming to Northern Colorado, Haskins said.
He sat in on a meeting of state wildlife directors from Utah, Wyoming and Colorado and their staffs this summer at Steamboat Lake. Bear management policy was a big topic of discussion at the summit meeting.
"There was agreement that some policies need to be re-thought," Haskins said. "We're having a lot of the same problems, like running out of places to put bears. The Wyoming representative said they are seeing (grizzlies) moving into areas where they've never seen them before."
Wyoming is experiencing between two and four bear maulings a year, and often the victims are stealthy bow hunters who unwittingly sneak up on bears in their day beds. Pepper spray has been dismissed as a mere condiment in Wyoming - think Cholula Mexican Hot Sauce - and for the first time, archery hunters are being allowed to carry handguns as a means of self-defense.
The American Bear Association says mature male black bears can range in weight from 125 pounds all the way up to more than 600 pounds. They typically vary in length between 4 and 6 feet. So, sheer size does not rule out the likelihood that the animal Lujan's partner saw was an unusually large black bear.
The last known grizzly bear in Colorado was killed in the San Juans in 1979 after it attacked a bow hunter who made a lucky stab with one of his arrows while he was being clawed.
As recently as September 2006, officials of the Colorado Division of Wildlife went into action after two hunters with grizzly experience saw a sow and two cubs on Independence Pass east of Aspen and reported they were grizzly bears.
DOW officials searched on foot without finding any signs, then dispatched a helicopter to spy them from the air. They met with no success.
Whatever species of bear it was that Lujan's party sighted, it wasn't the only bear in the woods that week.
"We had a great time elk hunting," Lujan said, "but it was unbelievable the amount of bears up there."
Lujan watched a sow with a pair of cubs invite themselves to dinner on the carcass of an elk he shot on the last night of muzzle-loading season. And another bear made a major pest of itself, returning four days in a row and finally tearing things up despite the food that was hung 10 feet up in a tree.
"I was in camp eating a salami and saw this little bear approaching through the trees. He got a whiff of that salami and he made a 90-degree turn," Lujan said. "He was on the other side of a wood pile from me and had his nose to the ground. When he got to the woodpile he stood on his hind legs and looked at me.
"I said, 'Hey buddy : how you doin'?' You know how bears get when they're nervous? Their jaws tremble? Well, his jaw started trembling and he started slobbering.'"
Don't you just hate it when bears think they can get away with slobbering in camp?
Tom Ross is a longtime Steamboat resident. His column is published Tuesdays and Saturdays in Steamboat Today.