Kahunapule Michael Johnson crouched outside the window of his parents' garage in Molina, Colo., to snap a photo of the bear that had just finished dining from their garbage cans and was still searching for food. That was more than two months ago, but it was hardly the last close encounter in the region. The New York Times reported recently that wildlife encounters throughout Colorado and other states are on the rise as hungry animals — starving from this summer's terrible drought — enter towns and farms in search of food. Bear activity in Aspen, Colo., alone was up 668 percent in August compared to last year, according to the Aspen Times.
The animals are so hungry that they are overcoming their natural fear of humans. "My God, they're everywhere," San Miguel County, Colo., Sheriff Bill Masters told the New York Times. "A lot of them just don't seem to care anymore. They're just wandering around."
Bears have been the most aggressive food-seekers, even sneaking into people's homes and businesses, but elk and mule deer are also dining whole-heartedly on farmers' corn and alfalfa fields, which are already suffering from the drought.
The situation is creating risks for humans, but it is also an indication of how bad things are for wildlife this year. "It's kind of an emergency," Utah state wildlife biologist Lowell Marthe told the New York Times. "If there's not enough food on those winter ranges, we're looking at potential for heavy die-offs in our deer."
Utah, in fact, has increased the number of elk hunting permits for this year in response to the drought. "By reducing the elk population somewhat, we're hoping that existing forage on our winter range is enough to sustain those deer and remaining elk through the winter without any big losses," Marthe told Deseret News.
Not every species has moved directly toward human-occupied territories in search of food and water. In Wyoming, the wildlife most affected by the drought have been pronghorn, which have been traveling outside their normal circles in search of watering holes. Wyoming's Star-Tribune reports that hunters are being cautioned to stay away from watering holes out of fear that human activity could stress the pronghorn. State biologists fear that this season's drought will result in fewer births next year.
Migrating birds are also suffering this year. USA Today reports that waterfowl populations are up, but there are fewer marshes, ponds and other bodies of water for the birds to rest at as they migrate south this fall. Migrating birds also rely upon farmland for mid-trip meals, something they won't be able to rely upon this year with so many drought-starved crops.
Not all bears entering towns this year are spurred by the drought. The police department in Bozeman, Mont., is currently receiving one or two reports of bear activity every night, but that's apparently normal for this time of year. "They do this pretty much every fall when they're trying to fatten up before heading to their dens," Andrea Jones of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. "It's pretty typical that we get bears in the northeast and southeast corners of town." Although no overly aggressive bears have been reported, citizens are being cautioned to cover their garbage cans, pick up any fallen fruit from trees, and not leave any pet or bird food outside.
Related animal story on MNN: How to survive a bear attack