Bears may be cute, but they're still wild animals that can be dangerous, and residents and visitors need to be mindful of "bear aware" practices to keep both bears and humans safe, according to Officer Jeanette Loven of the Telluride Marshal's Department. (Planet file photo)

On Friday evening, 39-year-old Laney Malavolta left her home just north of Durango with her two dogs apparently to go for a simple evening walk in the woods near her house. At around 8:30 p.m., however, her boyfriend found the two dogs back at home without Malavolta, prompting him to begin looking for her. He found her mauled body shortly thereafter in a nearby wooded area, killed in what appeared to be a fatal bear attack.

According to a Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) news release, CPW officers responded to the scene and observed strong evidence of a bear attack, including signs of consumption on the body, and an excess of bear scat and hair at the scene. Using a dog team, officers searched the area, quickly locating an adult female black bear and two cubs, which they euthanized. Necropsies performed on the bears by a CPW pathologist Sunday evening revealed human remains in the stomachs of the sow and one of the yearlings. The bears appeared to be in good bodily condition with fat stores appropriate for the time of year, officials explained.

Despite the shock triggered by the gruesome attack, such incidents remain “extremely rare,” according to Cory Chick, CPW southwest region manager, who lamented the “tragic event.” Chick also noted that while euthanizing an animal is never taken lightly, a bear that has learned to view humans as a food source or that loses their fear of humans is a dangerous animal, and in this case, the mother bear was teaching her young to view humans as a potential food source.

The Friday attack was the fourth deadly bear attack in Colorado over the past 60 years and the first in over a decade, according to CPW records, which points to the extreme rarity of a fatal bear-human interaction. The incident offers a reminder to remain alert of one’s surroundings while enjoying the outdoors as a matter of best practice, according to Mark Caddy, the Norwood district wildlife manager for CPW.

“You need to make sure that when you live in bear habitat you keep your head on a swivel,” he said. “If you’re hiking in the woods, for example, it’s best to make noise so that animals know you’re there. For the most part, they don’t want to mess with you anymore than you want to mess with them.”

He also recommended keeping dogs leashed while hiking to minimize the potential of unwanted interactions with wildlife.

While run-ins with wild animals in the wilderness do occur, the more frequent location for negative bear-human interactions often occurs right in town. Telluride is, of course, bear country, and as a hub for humans, it’s a hub for food. As the “bear aware” refrain goes, “A fed bear is a dead bear.” To help guard against unwittingly teaching the local bear population that where there are humans, there are snacks, it’s important to remain vigilant in maintaining best practices to maximize both bear and human safety.

Kelly Crane, a CPW wildlife officer, observed that the worst repeat offenders in attracting bears to human habitat are trash and bird feeders.

“Both seed and hummingbird nectar,” she said. “Those, along with trash left unsecured, frequently attract bears.”

She added that even people who are on top of maintaining “bear aware” practices at home often let their guards down while camping, such as by leaving non-bear proof coolers out or leaving food and trash unsecured at campsites. Many visitors, she pointed out, simply don’t know how to be “bear aware.”

Jeanette Loven, a code enforcement officer for the Telluride Marshal’s Department, noted that many people are driven by a curiosity to observe wildlife, getting too close without realizing that even creatures like elk are wild animals that can be dangerous if they feel threatened. Snacks or pet food left in vehicles, she said, is another common enticement for bears, which can open a car door whether it’s locked or not.

“Bears can just use their claws to pry a car door open,” she said. “They’re very smart and they have good memories, and the babies are learning from their moms about where to find food.”

Colorado is home to approximately 17,000 to 20,000 black bears, and each one of those bears possess a nose that is approximately 100 times more sensitive than the human nose, able to smell food from up to five miles away, according to CPW information. They are generally shy and dislike running into humans, but if you do encounter one, it’s best to retreat while making some noise.

No need to jump straight into scream mode, and certainly don’t turn and run, advised Caddy, which can trigger the predator-prey instinct in both bears and mountain lions.

“It may sound funny, but I like to tell people to just introduce themselves if they see a bear while out on a trail,” Caddy said. “I say, ‘Hey bear, it’s Mark! What are you doing over there?’”

This makes the animal aware of your presence without startling it, and in most cases the animal will follow your lead by retreating as well. In the case of an aggressive animal that shows signs of attacking, use rocks, sticks or any other deterrent on hand to fight back to “make them understand that you’re not the prey they think you are,” Caddy said.

“Our take home message is always you’re living in their habitat. They’re going to be around,” he said, adding that this is not cause for alarm but rather awareness. “Pay attention to your surroundings.”