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Staying Safe In Colorado Bear Country

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Mark Duggan/KSUT
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The bear attack that killed Laney Malavolta occurred on the forested slopes in the background, not far away from a crowded subdivision and popular hot springs. A recent study showed that bear attacks are more likely where wild and urban lands meet.

Laney Malavolta, 39, of Durango, Colorado was found dead two weeks ago after a bear attack north of the city. An autopsy report released Tuesday confirmed she died from injuries sustained during the attack. We talked to state wildlife officials about being "bear aware" on the trail.

The incident happened about ten miles north of Durango, in a semi-rural area heavily populated with homes, a bible camp, a touristy hot springs, and a gourmet grocery store.

Her death marks only the fourth fatality related to black bears in Colorado since 1971. The last death occurred near Ouray in 2009.

The attack is a reminder that most Coloradans live and recreate in bear country. And the common perception that attacks mostly happen in the backcountry is wrong. Longtime Durango resident and journalist Jonathan Thompson noted in his May 3 Land Desk blog that a recent study showed attacks are more likely to happen within what's known as the wildland-urban interface.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife maintains a Bear Aware program with information on how to safely co-exist with bears. It includes tips on how to avoid human-bear confrontations and what to do if you are approached or attacked.

We reached out to Rebecca Ferrell with Colorado Parks and Wildlife to learn more about how to be “bear aware.” She recommends hiking with companions and carrying bear spray and trekking poles. And if a bear does attack? Stand your ground.

“In Colorado, since we only have black bears, playing dead is not the option you want here,” she explained. “Odds are, if you clap, you give it a loud voice, you stay calm, it will go on its own.”

If the bear advances, stands up, or starts making “huff!” noises, Ferrell said to raise and wave your hands over your head. The idea is to make yourself appear bigger to the bear and convince it that you're not suitable prey.

“Don't turn your back, keep your eye on that bear,” she added. “And if you're able, back slowly away.”

Oh, and leave the headphones or earbuds at home, Ferrell said. It's important to be able to hear as much as you can in your surrounding environment.