Antonio’s Real New York Pizza in Estes Park, Colorado, got some unexpected customers over the weekend when a mother bear and her two cubs broke in through the drive-thru window and treated themselves to a feast of pizza ingredients.
According to the owners, who posted a five-minute security camera video of the incident on Facebook, the bears were just looking for “calories with which to hibernate.”
This is just the latest incident of dozens every day as the state sees a record number of human-bear conflicts driven by the animals’ increasing reliance on human-derived food, and challenging weather conditions.
Located in a valley bordered by Rocky Mountain National Park, black bears frequently encroach on human development in the Estes Park—so much so that dumpster lids are actually bear-proof.
In fact, in their Facebook comment analyzing the incident, the owners of the pizza place, which has been open for nearly three years, say the new lid requirements are part of the problem:
While I don’t advocate feeding wildlife in any way, I believe it would have been much better to have left the old dumpster tops in place because they wouldn’t become desperate enough to break into houses or businesses and the damage in dollars would be much lower. We’ve now forced the bears’ paws to break into homes and businesses. This could have been so much worse.
Bryan Peterson with Bear Smart Durango, an organization working to better human-bear interactions, told Earther that locking up trash doesn’t result in an increase in home and business invasions by bears.
He said that it’s actually the case that “communities that have done a good job keeping trash from bears have far less bear activity than those that have yet to properly manage trash.”
As for this year in particular, Peterson said a late frost wiped out a lot of important fall foods, especially acorns, that bears rely on for hibernation.
“Many human and bear issues begin in these natural food failure years as bears will utilize human foods, most notably trash and bird feeders,” he said. “Natural food conditions certainly play a role in bad bear seasons, but equally important is the availability of human foods.”
The number of bear-human conflicts in Colorado has been rising over the last decade, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, a phenomenon that can end very badly for the bears when they’re perceived as a threat. As of late July, CPW officers had killed 35 bears that they determined had become a safety problem. Seventeen bears had been relocated, but that method doesn’t always alleviate the conflicts. In 2016, 334 bears that were deemed dangerous were killed by either government wildlife managers or landowners. That number doesn’t include the over 1,000 bears that were killed by hunters.
According to a 2015 CPW report, rapid expansion of human development in the state has made it so black bears have learned to forage on a wide variety of “human-provided food” including garbage, livestock, crops, bird seed and pet food.
“When natural bear foods are limited by weather events such as a late freeze or prolonged drought, many bears turn to these alternative foods creating a ‘perfect storm’ of increasing human-bear interactions and conflicts,” the report reads.
There are between 17,000 to 20,000 bears in Colorado, all requiring on average around 20,000 calories a day as they prepare for hibernation. An enduring drought or new development can easily throw them off course. As human-bear encounters become more routine and food sources less accessible, the bears will likely get even more brazen with their actions, as evidenced by the pizza parlor break in.
“We’re receiving more reports of bears investigating people, getting closer to people than we normally would expect,” Matt Thorpe, a CPW area wildlife manager in southwest Colorado, recently told The Denver Post. “They’re not demonstrating that natural fear of humans that we usually see.”
Peterson added that “black bears are opportunistic feeders and will risk venturing into communities, trading in their natural wariness of people in exchange for food rewards. This many times benefits bears, but only for the short-term, as accessing human foods leads to increased conflict with humans and increased bear mortality.”
If the bears are anything like humans, one taste of real New York pizza will be far from enough.